The NFL, concussions, and the politics of diversion
When people create buzzy, puffy, talking points to distract the focus from larger issues, it’s known as the politics of diversion. It’s not just a political concept, of course. You see it everywhere — from Presidential elections to big business to college athletics to … well, My Little Pony cartoons. The NFL has engaged in the art of political diversion for years (actually, decades) when it comes to concussions. The league has employed doctors who insisted that there was no link between football-induced head trauma and long-term brain injuries, and Commissioner Roger Goodell was weed-whacked by Congress in 2009 when he gave flimsy answers about what the league was doing about player safety.
Even when the league recently settled with more than 4,000 retired players and their families to end lawsuits claiming that the NFL knew far more about the effects of head trauma than it was letting on, those players and their families gave up the right to claim any liability. That’s standard in negotiated settlements where the question of liability is an issue, but it’s rather interesting how much the league has been able to skate on this issue over time.
Now that the threat of long-term brain trauma seems to be actually real in an actual sense, the NFL’s official website has decided to do something about it. To wit, the NFL’s official website has decided to focus on the increasing number of head injuries … in Major League Baseball.
No, really. The same league that would not act as a medical advocate for its own players for goodness knows how long has decided to link to a USA Today article by Jorge L. Ortiz revealing that the number of concussions in professional baseball has gone up, and the problem among catchers is especially severe.
Teams have put players on the disabled list due to concussions or head injuries 18 times this year, five more than all of last season and seven more than in 2011, when the seven-day concussion DL was implemented. In 10 of those 18 instances, the players were catchers, including the Boston Red Sox’s David Ross twice.
That from NFL.com Contributing Editor Bill Bradley, who also says that “MLB is dealing with the same concussion culture that the NFL has been trying to change. Players say many of their peers are playing with head injuries.”
Ah, yes. The culture that the NFL is trying to change. That would be the same culture which allowed then-Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy to return to a December 2011 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers very soon after he had been poleaxed and clearly concussed by then-Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison. The Browns so mishandled McCoy’s concussion diagnosis that they were later forced to admit “total system failure.” And even then, the team’s coach and general manager defended the process. Harrison was suspended one game for the hit, but the Browns weren’t penalized in any way.
“If he was hurt so bad, I don’t know why they let him back in two plays later,” Harrison said after his suspension about the Browns. “Something should be done to them, I would think. I don’t know. I got a game, what should they get?”
This is also the same culture that has avoided having independent (non team-employed) neurologists on the sideline for every team in every game. Instead, the league tasked its game officials with concussion diagnoses. NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said at the league’s most recent Super Bowl press conference that the NFL is working through details that will have independent neurologists on the field, which would ostensibly leave game officials to the jobs they’re mostly qualified to do.
The fact that the NFL is citing a seemingly increasing concussion problem in another sport also raises the most obvious concussion-related question in the NFL — is it that there are more concussions now, or is it that sports leagues are more beholden to actually report them? Because that has been an issue before.
What Bradley does not write in his editorial about the USA Today piece is that in many cases, the NFL’s continuing issues with concussions raised awareness of symptoms among baseball players — and most likely athletes in other sports. If the NFL had handled this issue with anything approaching consistency and integrity over the years, that would actually be a fine talking point — “Hey, look how our campaigns have affected others!”
But NFL.com can’t do that, because the league that operates it has no actual campaigns — only hollow reactions forced by outrage. And because in moving attention from the league’s own obvious issue, the league seems to feel that it treads a fine line between message control and total obfuscation of the long-term truth.
And the fact that the official mouthpiece of the league would use a relatively infinitesimal issue in another sport to create a political diversion seems to prove that no matter how much Goodell squawks on about player safety and a “New NFL,” the real point seems to be about the same old C.Y.A.