Hall of Fame running backs Emmitt Smith and Marshall Faulk have both denounced an NFL rule that banned running backs from initiating contact with the helmet, but they admitted this week to worrying about the long-term consequences of repeated blows to the head.
“Yes, it does concern me,” Smith, who retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher in 2004, told ThinkProgress ahead of Super Bowl XLVIII. “It concerns me big-time, and why wouldn’t it? I’m a guy that carried the ball over 4,000 times in the National Football League. I carried the ball more than anybody in the history of the game. So why wouldn’t I be concerned when I see a guy like Earl Campbell, whose body is starting to decay on him, and I see a guy like Tony Dorsett that says he’s had some mental issues as well, and I see a guy like Jim McMahon, who I’ve played golf with and I know that are having some issues? And many, many other players—people that I know personally.”
Dorsett, also a Hall of Fame running back, announced in November that doctors had found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease found in dozens of dead football players, in his brain.
Smith said that he has not yet experienced any similar symptoms of lasting head trauma.
“It is my hope that nothing might ever happen to me,” Smith, 44, said, “but I would be naïve to think that I shouldn’t be doing things to prevent any further damage to my brain and my body while I’m still able to function on a normal basis.”
Faulk, 40, retired in 2005 as the league’s 10th all-time leading rusher and continues active work as a broadcaster and philanthropist. He has also not reported any head trauma symptoms but visits doctors regularly to check for the presence of CTE in his brain. Faulk previously called the new rules aimed at reducing concussions “a joke” but backtracked this week, saying that rules like this one are necessary for the game’s future.
“Do I like the rule changes? I do not, but I understand the rule changes. I do 100 percent,” Faulk told ThinkProgress. “The grand scheme of things with the rule changes is if you’re a parent, you want to know that the NFL is doing things to make the game safer so your kid can play — so you feel OK letting your kid go out and play the game that I love to play. So I understand what all the rule changes are about…I am never going to condemn the game that gave me the life that I have right now.”
The new rule and the concussions that spurred it have been a particular concern for running backs, not just because the rule applies directly to them (it was barely noticeable during the 2013 season) but because they play one of the sport’s most dangerous positions.
Brian Westbrook, another retired running back, said months ago that he constantly worries about his long-term health. “I think about it all the time, every time I wake up and can’t remember the name of someone I once knew,” he said at a panel discussion on concussions. “I always think about it,”
Concussions in the NFL dropped 13 percent this season from 2012, according to injury data released by the league. The NFL’s $765 million settlement with over 4,500 former players is on hold while a federal judge mulls if it is enough to cover their medical costs in retirement.