Media Day has barely begun, and the best sound bite perhaps was provided by one of the players before the thing even started.
Steelers receiver Hines Ward has teed off on the NFL for its handling of the concussion problem, in comments to Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports, who has interviewed eight veteran players on the question of big hits and other issues for GQ.
“We don’t know what they want,” Ward said regarding the league’s rules pertaining to helmet-to-helmet hits. “They’re so hypocritical sometimes. They came out with these new helmets that are supposed to stop concussions. If they care so much about our safety, why don’t they mandate that we wear the new ones? If they’re so worried about what concussions will do to us after our careers, then guarantee our insurance for life. And if you’re going to fine me for a hit, let the money go to veteran guys to help with their medical issues.
“To say the league really cares? They don’t give a f–k about concussions. And now they want to add on two extra games? Are you kidding? Come on, let’s be real.”
Ward also touched on an issue that arose last week, after Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers took a massive hit in the ear hole from Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. Rodgers, we believe, knew not to look or act like a guy who had suffered a concussion, or else. Per Ward, it’s not an unusual reaction.
“Now that these new guidelines are in place, you’ll see more and more guys lying to doctors to stay on the field,” Ward said. “Contracts aren’t guaranteed. If a guy’s contract is coming up and he gets his bell rung — and if he has a concussion, he’ll have to leave the game and maybe miss another one — trust me, he ain’t tellin’ nobody. Look at [49ers running back] Brian Westbrook. He was an elite player who had concussion issues, and he struggled to find work after the Eagles cut him. Guys saw that. I’m telling you, if you’re a guy on the bubble or playing for your next contract, you’re going out there and jeopardizing your life to get that payday.”
Or if, in the case of Aaron Rodgers, you’re trying to make it to the Super Bowl.
Ward made headlines during the 2009 season by questioning teammate Ben Roethlisberger after Roethlisberger’s complaints about headaches resulted in Roethlisberger missing a key game against the Ravens with a concussion.
“This game is almost like a playoff game,” Ward told Bob Costas of NBC’s Football Night in America. “It’s almost a ‘must’ win. So, I can see some players or some teammates kind of questioning like, ‘Well, it’s just a concussion. I’ve played with concussions before. I would go out there and play.’ So, it’s almost like a 50-50 toss-up in the locker room. You know, should he play, shouldn’t he play. It’s really hard to say. . . . I’ve lied to a couple of doctors saying ‘I’m straight, I feel good,’ when I knew I’m really not straight.”
Other players were pragmatic about the risks they take, in exchange for the rewards they receive. “Yes, there are risks, but other jobs have risks, too,” Cowboys cornerback Terrence Newman told Silver. “Coal miners go to work knowing the risks. They’re making a choice to support their family. We all know what we signed up for.”
And they signed up for it long before they got paid for it. “A lot of people you talk to, if you ask them, ‘Why did you get into playing football?’ they’ll tell you, ‘When I was 8, I could’ve played soccer or another sport, but I played football because I wanted to hit somebody,’” Browns linebacker Scott Fujita told Silver. “All of us inherently like contact.”
Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu echoed a similar sentiment to Silver. “[N]o one forced you to play football. You chose it. If you want to completely avoid health risks, maybe you shouldn’t be playing this game. We signed up for this, man. My dad [former Patriots running back Mosi Tatupu] played, and I look at the lifestyle it afforded me growing up and what I’m going to leave behind for my family. You only live once. I know there’s a risk, but to me all of this outweighs it.”
In past years, players possibly weren’t aware of the specific risks presented by chronic blows to the head. But they now are, and none have retired because of it.
Many jobs entail varying degrees of risk. Most sports entail risk. Many recreational activities entail risk. The rewards vary as well. For NFL players, the rewards consist of, at a minimum, a good standard of living and, for the star players, fame and fortune.
As we’ve said before, if 18-year-old men and women can risk life and limb for far less money than pro athletes earn, 21-year-old (and older) men have every right to risk injury, acute and chronic, by playing football.
Still, the players resent the mixed messages from the league office regarding the move to eliminate illegal hits on one hand and a desire to expand the regular season to 18 games on the other. “Everybody doubts the league’s sincerity,” said Fujita, a member of the NFLPA Executive Committee. “Quit pretending to be the flag-bearers for our health care and safety when you’re telling us in the next sentence that we need to go to eighteen games. That doesn’t cut it. Obviously you don’t give a sh-t about our health and safety. Remember that photo of [Steelers linebacker James] Harrison making a hit on [Browns receiver Mohamed] Massaquoi? They fined him $75,000 for that — and at the same time, they were selling it on NFL.com for $24.99. They kept it there until someone shamed them into taking it down. I was so pissed off by the hypocrisy of it all. I was walking around the locker room talking sh-t, and others were doing the same thing.”