BOSTON (CBS) – It’s becoming a bigger topic by the day. Whether it’s the NFL or the NHL, concerns for player safety are coming to a head. Rodney Harrison, Roger Goodell, even President Obama are expressing their concern for the health and safety of professional athletes—and it’s about time.
To me, Rodney Harrison’s comments are the most significant. A well-known former player turned analyst openly and honestly admitting he’s “scared to death” about the future of his health. Harrison, who suffered an estimated 20 concussions over his 15-year career, should have some trepidation as he looks toward his future. I’m glad he spoke up and hope he’s just one of many players who find a platform to talk about their fears as they look toward their future. Last week, Roger Goodell, while not always the most popular guy in the NFL, assured the media, fans, and players during his press conference the NFL would do what was necessary to make the appropriate changes to make the game safer. They’re going to have to do something because more than 4,000 NFL players are suing the league on the concussion issue claiming it didn’t inform players of the risk of long-term brain damage.
This begs the question “what responsibility does the (you fill in the blank) NFL, NHL, MLS, have to protect its players?” A recent NFLPA poll showed more than 75% of its players don’t trust their team’s medical staff. Owners invest a lot of money in their players, and that investment should start with a skilled medical staff. Here’s an example of a bad investment: the San Diego Chargers team doctor lost a malpractice lawsuit last summer and is facing an attempt to have his medical license suspended or revoked. How does this guy have a job? And why isn’t there a system in place to verify credentials of ALL team medical personnel? So, before you hire a new head coach, you might want to hire a new team doctor. The only thing Norv Turner is guilty of is being a bad head coach, not facing accusations of gross negligence and repeated negligent acts.
It’s pathetic that at a pre-Super Bowl news conference last week NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith had to declare that “The players of the National Football League deserve to have a doctor that’s not been found liable of malpractice.” You bet they do. I have to assume these are just two of many legal repercussions to come. Investigations into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and research on degenerative brain disease and its link to the health-and-well-being of professional athletes is ongoing. Boston University, whose Researchers pioneered the study of CTE, have found it in 33 of the 34 brains of former NFL players they have examined.
No wonder Rodney Harrison is concerned.
CTE doesn’t just affect NFL players; it rocked the NHL in 2011 when Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard, and Rick Rypien all died within a matter of four months of one another. Boogaard died of a drug overdose, while Belak and Rypien committed suicide. Boogaard was diagnosed post-mortem with CTE, which can cause memory loss aggression, confusion, and depression. Belak and Rypien both suffered from depression, but there was no evidence either of them had CTE. Bob Probert, a well-known enforcer in the league who died a year before, also had CTE. NHL fans and players should be concerned whether the league is doing enough to protect their players. I understand it’s a risk professional athletes take by playing a very physical game, but there should still be some level of protection.
Read: Seau Diagnosed With CTE
Shortly after Matt Cooke’s hit derailed Marc Savard’s career the NHL implemented Rule 48, meant to protect players and reduce the number of concussions and by punishing both blindside hits and hits targeting the head. Let’s face it, the NHL will never eliminate all hits to the head; they’re just trying to cut down on the intent to injure. After the NFL watched many players leave the game with concussions or severe hits to the head, they too introduced a series of clearly defined steps teams must follow when players get knocked out of the game. Let’s just hope the medical staff is qualified enough to understand and follow those steps.
Fighting will always be part of the NHL, just like hard hits will always be a part of the NFL. It creates momentum and the fans love it. Goons, enforcers, and bounty players will always be part of leagues. Let’s face it, they make the game exciting for the fans, plus it gives the media something to talk about. The only thing is, we aren’t the ones taking the hits nor will we have to deal with the effects of what happens days, weeks, months or years after our favorite player skates off the ice or walks off the field. In time, I guess we’ll find out how well the imposed punishments and rules work. I think the leagues owe it to players like Savard, Ryan Miller, Sidney Crosby, Stevan Ridley, Joshua Cribbs, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and many others, to continue their quest to protect their investment. In my opinion, it’s just a matter of time before someone ends up with more than just a concussion. I don’t think either game has to change radically, but I do think some changes need to be enforced in order for the game to survive another 30 years.
Fans and players need to continue to hold the leagues, owners and medical staffs accountable and continue to push for changes. Not next year, not after the next big hit, but now.
Tracy Clements is a weekend producer on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow her on twitter at @clementine_12.