Monday, November 19, 2012

Monday Night Football In The Concussion Era

Both teams in tonight's Monday Night Football game between the Bears and 49ers, a matchup between two of the NFC's best teams, will be starting backup quarterbacks. Last week, Alex Smith and Jay Cutler each suffered concussions and had to leave the game, and neither has been cleared to return yet, so Jason Campbell versus Colin Kaepernick it is. Are you ready for some (bad) football?

Players in the trenches get concussed all the time, but the NFL is particularly sensitive to players in the limelight, especially quarterbacks, suffering concussions. It's probably truly only applied to skill position players, but the concussion/independent doctor protocol that got Alex Smith out of the game (a little too late) and has him still sitting out is a good thing. Guys may not hit like they once did back when "football was football," but our knowledge of the lifelong impact of concussions has made football feel more gladiatorial than ever, in the sense of sacrificing oneself for the entertainment of others. NFL players choose to take on that risk and are well compensated for it, but it doesn't necessarily make that transaction moral.

Smith and Cutler sitting out is also a reminder that the NFL may make mostly cosmetic changes to underlying problems in gameplay, but there has been some progress. Alex Smith was hit hard twice in the first quarter and he went out of the game, and no one questioned his toughness. Same with Cutler, for whom the enduring narrative of his career is whether he's a wimp or not (he got clobbered in the head and stayed in the game before leaving at halftime). As far as we know, Cutler and Smith were not pressured to re-enter their respective games. In a weird way, we're starting to treat (certain) concussions with respect, and that's definitely a good thing.

I bring all this up because a certain Green Bay gunslinger was celebrated for doing just the opposite not too long ago. Come back with me all the way to 2004, before the multiple retirements, before the dick texts, back when Favre had everyone in the media in his lap. The kid out there was playing the New York Giants and he got his bell rung by William Joseph, a 315-pound lineman, and went to the sidelines in a clear daze. I'll let the NYTimes take it away from here:
Brett Favre added to his legend Sunday with what may soon become known as the Concussion Throw, a 28-yard touchdown pass to Javon Walker in the third quarter, just three plays after banging his head when defensive lineman William Joseph drove him to the Lambeau Field turf.
Packers Coach Mike Sherman said Favre was "a little cloudy" after the hit by Joseph, and the Packers' medical staff wanted him out of the game. 
But while Doug Pederson was in for the next two plays, Sherman said he asked Favre if he felt O.K., without consulting the team doctor or trainer. 
For Favre, who was already playing with a sore left shoulder and left hamstring, that was akin to asking a fox if it would like 20 minutes alone in a henhouse. 
"He said yeah, and he threw the touchdown pass," Sherman said. "The doctors told me after that they didn't want to put him back in the game. The doctors hadn't exactly cleared him. So I was in error by putting him back in the game." 
There's no way that article could be written today. Kurt Warner, the Giants quarterback at the time, added that Favre "didn't even remember the touchdown play." Just eight years ago, Favre was celebrated for putting himself at risk in that way, for being a warrior. Mike Sherman's pathetic mea culpa is laughable at best, criminally negligent at worst. This was not the 1950s. This was 2004. 

It's probably gotten better, but the NFL has not solved its concussion crisis, a problem that stretches from the way salaries are structured (non-guaranteed so a replaceable player may hide a concussion to not get cut) to the warrior culture of the game's players to the simple fact that tackle football is violent. This particular policy, that players need to clear certain benchmarks for re-entry and need to be evaluated by an independent doctor, smacks a little of "wag the dog," showing off that the league is taking concussions seriously for its quarterbacks, but not necessarily for everyone else. But it's a wobbly step in the right direction.

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