Hard Knocks, the HBO show that gives fans an inside look at NFL training camp, began its eighth season Tuesday night, and while the show remains entertaining, it also shed light on multiple issues that still face the NFL as it tries to deal with its ongoing concussion problem.
Many NFL teams have moved to limit contact in practices, but that isn’t necessarily the case for the Cincinnati Bengals, the subject of this year’s show. Tuesday’s first episode showed the Bengals utilizing the Oklahoma Drill, which features a running back, an offensive player blocking for him, and a defensive player trying to stop the runner. Most teams have sidelined the Oklahoma Drill because of the injury and concussion risks it poses, but the Bengals are still using it, open evidence that not all NFL teams are committed to reducing contact in practice in an effort to limit head injuries.
More important, though, was an exchange between Bengals trainer Paul Sparling and wide receiver Marvin Jones after Jones stayed on the turf after diving to make a catch. Jones told Sparling that he hit his head, and Sparling did what he was supposed to do, taking him out of practice for the day. Jones questioned the decision and tried to lobby his way back into drills — “”I’m good, trust me. I’m good, trust me,” he said — but Sparling stood firm, eventually invoking Jones’ children to make his case, as Yahoo’s Frank Schwab noted:
Sparling: “What would your folks want me to do?”
Jones: “To be honest, if I was good … “
Sparling: “OK, what would your children want me to do? Take care of daddy?”
Sparling: “That’s what I’m doing, taking care of daddy. Fair enough?”
Jones: “Yeah, that’s good.”
One of the biggest problems facing football when it comes to dealing with concussions is how to change the roots of its culture. That involves changing the way the game is played — how guys use their heads when running and tackling. But the part that needs to change most is in how players react to head injuries. Players don’t want to leave the field, not because they aren’t worried about their health but because playing through pain is an aspect of sports that they are taught from a young age. Whether it’s a knee injury, a bump or bruise, or a potential concussion, players think nothing should keep them off the field for anything more than a minimal amount of time. Compound that with the fact that it’s training camp, in which players are competing for jobs for the upcoming season, and that instinct or desire to set aside the pain and keep going gets even stronger.
That’s why putting a large responsibility of the concussion crisis on the shoulders of players won’t work. The economics of their sport tells them to return to the field, but so does the culture in which they’ve been raised. It’s hard enough to set aside those incentives when a player decides whether he should tell a trainer that he’s had his bell rung. Add to it the murkiness of thought that often occurs after a player hits his head, and that decision becomes even harder. So while some of the onus certainly falls on players to report hits to the head and potential concussions when they happen, leagues like the NFL and organizations like the NCAA have to realize that the majority of the responsibility falls to them and that fixing the concussion problem isn’t as simple as changing rules. The culture of the game that tells players to dust it off and get back in there has to change as well. By showing us a trainer doing what players and the NFL need him to do, Hard Knocks showed us that football is better now than it used to be. But by showing us a player reticent to step off the field, it also demonstrates how much farther its culture has to go.