Skip to main content

Five ways to end football head injuries

By Jeff Pearlman, Special to CNN
tzleft.jeff.pearlman.courtesy.jpg
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NFL player Dave Duerson killed himself but left note asking for his brain to be studied
  • Jeff Pearlman says Duerson suspected that head trauma from game led to brain disease
  • Pearlman: All know football head injuries are a problem, but who will do something?
  • Pearlman offers five ways to cut the incidence of football impacts that cause long-term damage

Editor's note: Jeff Pearlman is a columnist for SI.com. He blogs at jeffpearlman.com.

(CNN) -- He shot himself in the chest.

When Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears safety, ended his traumatized life February 17, he was careful not to destroy his brain. He left a note asking that his brain be given to the National Football League to be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease recently found posthumously in about 20 retired players.

Duerson, who was 50, clearly believed that 11 years of NFL contact had transformed his once-sharp mind into a damaged and diminished tool. (The disease is not confined to football: National Hockey League player Bob Probert, who died of heart disease in July, also suffered from it, according to a New York Times report this week.)

Because he is not here to speak, it might seem somewhat tasteless to interpret the deeper meaning behind Duerson's action. One thing, however, is clear: The NFL has a problem with head issues that needs to be addressed. The players know it. The owners know it. The league executives know it.

The question is: Does anyone have the courage to act?

Here are five suggestions:

Change the helmets: When it comes to helmets, the clichéd belief is that the NFL needs to delve into its bag of technological tricks to come up with a safer, more secure, more layered product. That's nonsense. In professional football, a hard hit is a hard hit, and if one's head is jarred by a 300-pound man flying through the air at full speed, no amount of outer protection will save his brain from rattling against his skull. "Concussions will happen, and there's not much that can be done," says Matt Tauber, who trains several NFL players in Purchase, New York. "Helmets only can protect so well."

The solution, as suggested by former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman: Go old school.

Family blames tragedy on football
Duerson asked for brain to be studied
RELATED TOPICS
  • NFL Football
  • Football

Until the NFL made the plastic football helmet legal in 1949, players' headgear was made of leather -- soft, relatively cushy leather, which protected, well, no one. But that's the point. Teenagers smoke cigarettes because they're young and dumb and need everyday visible proof to show how harmful smoking can be. Were one's face to rot off with the puff of a Marlboro, nobody would smoke -- ever.

The same goes for football. Because brain injuries are internal, and often take years to manifest, football players usually give little thought to leading with their noggins. Were leather helmets to be implemented, however, nobody would do such a thing. Well, maybe they'd try for a game or two. Then, heads would turn bloody. Skulls would crack. Ears would bleed.

And that would be that.

Ignore the desires of the NFL's executives and owners: As we speak, the league and the union are fighting over various issues and trying to avoid a lockout. One of the key points is the league's so-insanely-and-ruthlessly-greedy-it-makes-me-want-to-vomit desire to move from a 16- to 18-game regular season

A suggestion to the players: Don't do it.

Seriously, don't. Not if the NFL throws in more money. Not if you long for more TV exposure. Not if your wife and your parents and your agent rave about the possibilities. Do. Not. Do. It. The league wants you to play 18 games for one reason: money. The more regular season action, the more $250 tickets and $15 beers and $10 Cokes to be sold.

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, the season lasted 12 games. Then it moved to 14. Then finally to 16. That's enough -- more than enough. Beneath the flashy uniforms and excitable announcers and half-naked cheerleaders, the NFL is brutal.

The more games, the more hits.

The more hits, the more damage to the head.

Suspend players for the season: How about this? You deliberately use your helmet to hit an opposing player, you're done. Season -- over. Salary -- lost. Is this harsh? Absolutely. Overly harsh? Probably. But the ol' you'll-ruin-the-game and football-is-a-violent-sport enablers need to reconsider their words and stances.

Yes, the game will lose something if defensive players have to check their hits. And yes, football is inherently violent. But, come day's end, it's merely a game. After the final whistle blows, the players walk into a locker room, remove their uniforms and return to the real world. They eat. They brush their teeth. They read Maxim and watch "Entourage" and sleep. Football is not essential to human survival. Were the NFL to cease existence tomorrow, we Homo sapiens would find a way to soldier on.

In other words, this problem needs to be taken more seriously, even if the quality of the product is reduced.

Require trainers to have no stake in a team's success: If the NFL genuinely wants its 32 head trainers to diagnose player injuries honestly and bluntly, it'll insist that these men cannot benefit from a winning season (or suffer from a losing one). For example, Pepper Burruss, the Green Bay Packers' head athletic trainer for 18 seasons, will receive not only a Super Bowl ring, but the standard financial bonuses that come along with the triumph. (For the record, Burruss has a stellar reputation, so this isn't personal.)

This makes no sense. If a player appears to be hurt, a trainer should not have any personal conflict about whether to suggest he be removed from the game. None. But what if the Super Bowl is on the line? What if there are 45 seconds remaining, and the star quarterback takes a vicious shot to the head? He's dizzy, but the team needs him. The kid says he can play. The coach says he can play. There's an $83,000 bonus hanging in the air.

What's the trainer to do?

Have Ted Johnson speak to every team during training camp: From 1995-2004, Johnson was a standout linebacker for the New England Patriots. He won three Super Bowls, accumulated 763 tackles and 11½ sacks, and played in 125 regular season games.

On February 1, 2007, The New York Times ran a remarkable piece on Johnson, detailing his struggles with post-concussion syndrome and Second Impact Syndrome. According to the article, Johnson suffers from amphetamine addiction, depression and headaches. He shows early signs of Alzheimer's disease.

At 38, Johnson is a young man. His words would carry impact, because they wouldn't be coming from a 60-year-old has-been with two replaced knees and a Quasimodo hunch. Johnson looks like a football player. Johnson talks like a football player. Johnson understands what it is to play in the modern, violent NFL.

His words mean something.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Pearlman.