A $765 million legal settlement and Week One of the 2013 National Football League season may have put to bed the issue of concussions and litigation for many football fans, but brain injuries, the future of football, and what the NFL did or did not do to protect its players is still on the minds of many of the game’s veterans. Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath became the latest player to criticize the NFL’s settlement with more than 4,500 former players last week on the season opening episode of Showtime’s Inside The NFL — and in doing so, he also shed light on how ignorant many of those players were of the dangers concussions and brain injuries posed.
“The NFL is responsible, to a major extent,” Namath said. “When I was playing we didn’t know from concussions. We knew smelling salts and that was it. No one talked concussions. But in the last 10 years these guys knew the pain to the head was problematic. And some of these doctors on the sidelines are more concerned, maybe, with pleasing the coach and getting the guy back on the field right away. I know that. I believe that. And I know that. I think that there is a problem in the NFL. I think that they are getting away with something with this settlement. I think it should be for much more. And it’s not actually been agreed on yet by Judge (Anita) Brody. She has got to approve the thing.”
Phil Simms, another Super Bowl-winning quarterback, wasn’t sure if the players should have gotten more, but he pointed to practices as evidence of how dangerous the game may have been. “The hitting in practice was worse than the games,” Simms said. “When I played with the Giants we scrimmaged basically every day. The linebackers, the linemen, were always hitting. I’m glad at least they have the money to rectify some of these situations.”
The NFL has made major attempts to improve since then. Many of its teams now limit contact in practices and avoid the most contact-heavy drills altogether. The league has implemented new rules aimed at preventing as many concussions as possible and now requires independent doctors to evaluate players suspected of suffering concussions. The NFL Players Association sent warnings to players before the season started last week reminding them of the dangers of the game, and the NFL requires that teams hang posters highlighting the dangers of concussions and the league’s new protocols in all locker rooms. Still, the settlement, as former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Collinsworth said on Inside The NFL, may prevent players, fans, and the public from learning about the league’s role in the concussion crisis and the true dangers that still inhabit its game.
“The thing I am concerned about is that we don’t attack this issue the way that we would if this case had gone forward,” Collinsworth said. “If there were a lot of discovery. If there were witnesses that had to take the stand. I think we would have gotten a much greater understanding of the concussion issue at the end of this. Now the NFL can kind of say, ‘Okay, we’re good now. Let’s move forward.’”
Moving forward as if $765 million is enough to end its concussion problem, though, would be a mistake and a disservice to current and former players as well as the future of the game itself. The amount of the settlement can be and should be debated — according to lawyer Paul Anderson, an expert on the concussion litigation, the amount was “very fair” — but the truth is that no amount of money would have been enough to remedy the problems concussions and brain injuries have caused former players. Money and treatment may help many players who need care and assistance, but the brains that have turned to mush and the lives that were lost can’t be fixed or brought back, not with money or anything else. We’re not even sure yet if football can be fixed, not when players like Kevin Kolb suffer potential career-ending concussions on routine plays and not when 170 players suffer concussions during a single season as they did in 2012, when the NFL was paying attention.
If the NFL wants to proceed as if the issue is settled, former players like Namath, Simms, and Collinsworth are in a position to make it harder for it to do so. Simms, half of CBS’ primary NFL broadcasting duo, and Collinsworth, who calls NFL games for NBC, have media platforms that allow them to continue critiquing the league and its approach to concussions in front of massive national audiences. Namath, still a fixture both at Jets games and on TV broadcasts, has his own high-profile persona that puts him in front of fans with regularity. And all three achieved enough success on the field — Simms and Namath as Super Bowl MVPs, Collinsworth as an eight-year veteran — to have clout to help current players, many of whom still aren’t acknowledging the dangers concussions pose, understand the issue. The settlement may have prevented the public from learning much of what took place in the past, but the issue of concussions and the dangers of football won’t go away just because the NFL wants it to. Fans, media, and experienced players like Namath, Simms, and Collinsworth can hold the league accountable in a way that helps current and future players experience a different reality than they lived when it comes to concussions.