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Can The NFL Keep Fans Excited And Players Safe?

Thousands of former players or their families are filing lawsuits, alleging that the league downplayed the risks for concussions. But the NFL denies wrongdoing. Host Michel Martin speaks with two sports reporters about the NFL's current approach to reducing concussions.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're continuing now with our focus on head trauma in sport. We're focusing now on football because, apart from the Olympics, which only happen every four years, on an ongoing basis, football is the most watched sport in America.

But now, there are complaints coming from within the sport that the National Football League has put profits above the players' health and well-being. At least 3,000 former players or their families are filing lawsuits against the League. Last June, a master complaint was filed in court alleging that the NFL knowingly concealed long-term effects of brain injuries from players.

The League disputes the claims and, in a statement to us says, quote, "The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so. Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the League's actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions," unquote.

As you might imagine, we've invited NFL Commission Roger Goodell to be a guest on this program a number of times, including today. That hasn't happened yet, but of course, we're going to keep trying.

But, in the meantime, to help us understand what the NFL is doing about brain injuries and concussion concerns, we've called upon two reporters who know the game well. Joining us now, Pablo Torre. He is a reporter with Sports Illustrated. Also with us, Shalise Manza Young. She is the New England Patriots reporter for the Boston Globe.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us. And, Pablo, in your case, thanks for joining us once again.

PABLO TORRE: Thank you for having me.

SHALISE MANZA YOUNG: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Shalise, I'm going to start with you because you're with the Patriots right now at training camp, following training camp. Have the lawsuits and all this conversation around the so-called concussion crisis affected the day-to-day routine?

YOUNG: With the Patriots, in particular, they don't like to discuss health issues with the players and things like that, but I think, certainly, over the last couple of years, it's something that players are becoming more aware of. I think a lot of it is on the player representatives for the union to get the information out to their fellow teammates. Any information that the league has, the NFL Players Association has, you know, to pass it on to the players and educate them on what's going on.

There are also supposed to be independent evaluators for a concussion that, if a player is thought to have a concussion, it's supposed to be somebody independent, not somebody paid by the team, who evaluates and, you know, that way, the idea is there's no pressure on them to do what's best for the team, so to speak, instead of what's doing best for the player.

MARTIN: Pablo, what is your sense of how concerned the League is, on the whole? I know it's hard to generalize, but on the whole, about the so-called concussion crisis? I mean, that's the term that we're using. Do they see it as a crisis?

TORRE: I think they have to and I don't think they have a choice, at this point. You know, the reality is that Roger Goodell - you know, this is the issue that may well define his legacy, his entire tenure as commissioner. And, to me, the turning point, in terms of actually caring, was October 2009, when you have a noticeably evasive Goodell sitting before the House Judiciary Committee and really got grilled about the link between head injury and brain disease.

And you take that moment and then you combine that with this total drumbeat of news about new research, about suicides of former players. It's the topic of discussion and you've seen, since 2009, Goodell makes several important changes. You have the founding of the Head, Neck and Spine Committee, which - the creation of which was an implicit repudiation of the League's former, quote, unquote, "Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee," which is very famously and very irresponsibly - they were known for downplaying the risks of concussions and is the target of that lawsuit.

And then you have new rules to protect players from direct hits to the head, investments in concussion research, a league-wide policy for the first time, as Shalise sort of alluded to about really actually having a uniform policy on the sidelines to deal with players.

MARTIN: One of the things you're talking about here is the NFL has already given a $1 million unrestricted gift to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CSTE, at Boston University's School of Medicine to support that research.

And, also, one thing the fans may not have noticed - that the kickoff line was moved up five yards, from the 30 yard line to the 35. What difference has that made?

TORRE: Yeah. That was a big player safety move, or at least it was touted as such and NFL now has the data to back that up. It was designed to prevent the sort of running start for the coverage team and to, you know, mitigate this incredibly harsh set of collisions on special teams. And the NFL reports now that, overall, concussions are down 12.5 percent from 2010.

And, even with that research grant you just mentioned, Michel, that's big because that - you know, the BU group was a nemesis of the NFL. The fact that they're working together now is an important point.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're continuing our special program focusing on head injuries in sport. Our guests are Shalise Manza Young. She covers the New England Patriots for the Boston Globe. Also with us, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre. He's also a regular contributor to our Barber Shop.

And Shalise, you know, we've talked a lot about former players and a number of former players have become increasingly vocal about their concerns about injuries that they sustained during their playing days and the effect that they think it may have had on their lives. We've also heard from former players who say they wouldn't let their own kids play, but these are retired players.

Are you hearing current players discuss concerns about this?

YOUNG: I don't know that it's something they talk about a great deal. You know, when you ask players, I think, when they're in the moment, these guys are 24, 25 years old, a lot of them. They've trained the majority of their lives to get to this point and they don't want to think about what's in the future. I think that's, you know, a syndrome a lot of young people have.

I have a 20-year-old son. He really isn't one to look at, you know, 10, 15, 20 years down the line - what might happen to him. And I think it's, you know, the same phenomenon with a lot of these players, but older players - you know, they do start to look at what can happen and I think, if you just pay attention to how old a lot of former NFL players are when they are passing away or if you keep in touch with former teammates and talk to them about the problems that they're having.

Here, within the Patriots, just last year, Mike Wright, who is a highly respected defensive lineman - he had to retire because he had two concussions within a year and he spent months, you know, just sitting in a dark room. He couldn't watch TV. He couldn't get on his computer. He really just could not focus without headaches. And, you know, obviously, that tremendously affected his day-to-day life and led to him having to retire.

So I think the players see the examples and I think that's where it starts, is them taking it more seriously and understanding that they have to be their own advocates, that a headache today or a concussion today could lead to bigger things down the road.

MARTIN: Pablo, a final thought from you. And I understand I'm asking you to speculate, but hitting is so much a part of the sport. I mean, it's what a lot of people love about the sport. I mean, they're not going to go do it themselves, but there's just something - it just seems like there's something kind of organic and fundamental about the enjoyment of the hit.

And it's so much a part of the culture. You know, there are NFL videos sold to fans with titles like, "Moment of Impact," "The Best of Thunder and Destruction." Do you think there's any - I mean - yeah. So can football continue to be football, the football that people enjoy, and make it safe enough for people to play where people don't feel that they're actually contributing to somebody's permanent disability, or worse, as a result of encouraging people to participate in this sport that so many Americans love?

TORRE: Right. And I don't think there is, to be honest. I mean, this is the existential question facing football and every member of the football industrial complex, from fans to parents to players to coaches, everybody. And I don't think you can.

I mean, the reality is, number one, as you just said, the cultural power of football lies in violence. That's what separates it from basketball and baseball and all the rest. Look at YouTube. Find the most popular highlight videos. I guarantee you that big hits - and those NFL videos and also highlight shows has been the main driver of excitement for so many years.

But, secondly, I think it's also not just the big hits. It's the idea that, even if you were to legislate a way, somehow, you know, the more dramatic hits, the head-to-head sort of hits, the reality is that sub-concussive impacts over and over again are what can cause an extreme amount of brain trauma and that's something that you can't just - you can't really stop. You can't remove that from football. That's how the game was structured from the very beginning.

And, if you can't eliminate those smaller hits and those smaller hits are also going to trickle down in terms of creating long term disability, that's... You know, I've been beating this drum before, but the NFL replaced boxing in terms of prominence culturally. And I think the NFL is a lot more like boxing than a lot of people would care to admit.

MARTIN: Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Shalise Manza Young is the New England Patriots reporter for the Boston Globe. She was kind enough to join us from the stadium, where she's covering training camp.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

YOUNG: Thank you.

TORRE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, what about the kids?

SHIREEN ATABAKI: Interviews or surveys of high school athletes, especially football players, have found that about 50 percent of them state they've had a concussion, or at least some of the signs and symptoms of it, at least once during their football playing career.

MARTIN: We hear from our roundtable of parents of young athletes, including one who studies brain trauma in kids when she's not on the sidelines. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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