BY Art Thiel 05:29PM 10/23/2013

Thiel: On safety, Seahawks’ Sherman whiffs

Richard Sherman wrote in his SI.com column NFL players accept the risks of violent contact. That doesn’t mean the NFL isn’t obligated, as with any other industry, to reform.

Richard Sherman thinks NFL players, once informed, should be allowed to accept the risks of full contact. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

In his weekly column for SI.com’s MMQB found here, Richard Sherman took a strong stand against some of the rules changes that have complicated his professional life as a Seahawks cornerback, writing that “the NFL is the problem” regarding player safety and that active players understand and accept the risks in a collision sport.

Sherman wrote that he does not contemplate long-term brain trauma consequences “(any) more than I think about the food I’m enjoying today, which could be revealed in 30 years to cause cancer or a heart murmur or something else unpredictable.

“Those are the things you can’t plan for, and the kind of optimism I have right now is the only way to live. And the next time I get hit in the head and I can’t see straight, if I can, I’ll get back up and pretend like nothing happened. Maybe I’ll even get another pick in the process.

“If you don’t like it, stop watching.”

Sherman didn’t plow new ground in his argument. But given his increasing profile, obvious intelligence and weekly national media platform provided no other active player, his position can be influential.

When he misses a key point, however, it’s reasonable to throw a flag for illegal use of logic.

I agree with him that the new restrictions on permissible contact are, for watchers as well as players, frustrating and confusing, and can lead to players “being forced to play with indecision, and indecision gets you hurt in this game.” I also agree that the motivation for the NFL to settle injury claims with former players and to restrict contact among current ones is merely a cynical attempt to thwart litigation past and future by saying, “Hey, we care!” (Sherman’s phrase).

But none of those consequences change the truth that nearly every field of human endeavor that involves significant risk to body and/or mind goes through through some sort of reformation when discoveries are made that suggest safer ways to do things.

From coal miners to cops to firefighters to soldiers to truck drivers to deep-sea divers to astronauts to construction workers to crab fishermen to chemical factory workers, all understand the same point that Sherman makes: We knew the job was dangerous when we took it.

But every one of those industries has undergone a series of changes, often only after confrontations and litigations by widowed spouses, orphaned children, poisoned consumers and random victims over the businesses’ ignorance, negligence, profiteering or corruption that led to unnecessary injuries, deaths and tragedies.

After almost every episode, affected people and other observers say some version of the same thing: Why did no one see trouble coming?

It is often the case that someone did. In fact, many do see bad things coming. But for many who see, they reach another conclusion first:  Yeah, but the money’s too good to do it another way, and it won’t last long.

That’s exactly what Sherman and many active players are saying when they are caught at the outer edge of football’s reformation: You’re messing with my gig, man!  It’s predictable and understandable. It’s the same thing coal miners said when federal safety standards closed some mines and forced others into massive, expensive changes. Twenty years later, a new generation of miners are grateful for changes that will allow them to see and play with grand-kids.

Were some changes wrong, even unnecessary? Of course, just as football referees overreact to rules just as new to them, and make mistakes that change game outcomes. But every industry undergoing reform does it in fits and starts, rarely smoothly.

Sherman wrote that head trauma sustained now is no different than eating food now that in 30 years will be discovered to cause cancer. What that analogy overlooks is that at least some of the food he eats now was made safer by the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency that President Theodore Roosevelt signed into existence in 1906 in part because sanitation and hygiene practices in food preparation were so bad that thousands were dying annually from something they ate. Death by hot dog is not such a threat any more.

That’s not to say that everything the FDA does is right, just or effective. But I am willing to say there are a lot more people around these days to read what Sherman and I write thanks to a national conscience that is curious enough to pursue higher standards and practices so that risks to long, productive lives are minimized.

Regarding football, what this layman thinks the research into brain trauma has told us so far is this: Hitting one’s head hard and repeatedly over years is a bad thing.

The question that raises is this: Is there a way to prevent or reduce these incidents’ frequency or severity so that a retired player such as 43-year-old Junior Seau doesn’t feel compelled to kill himself?

Far as I can tell, we don’t know. Science inevitably will lag behind the urgency for an answer. But until science reaches conclusions, the void will be filled by resistance and confusion, because the only immediate actions available are abrupt changes the game’s rules to reduce the risk.

I don’t expect Sherman or any of his peers to like it. What I would hope is they can appreciate it, not because the NFL ordered it, but because much science, history and common sense have prevailed in other businesses where dangers were well known, too, to its risk-takers.

Twenty years from now, football players and fans will look back on the game played prior to 2010 and say, “Why did no one see trouble coming?”


YourThoughts

  • Kage McClued

    But in the end, it IS up to them, like it was up to me.

    No, I never made it to the pros, but I played my last organized tackle ball when I was 30.

    And I’m paying for it now… but I knew then that I would. And nothing that’s happened in the intervening 28 odd years would have changed any of it.

    • art thiel

      Every former player I’ve met always says of the later-in-life consequences that they would never change a thing. It may be true. It also may be true that very few of us are willing to admit that it wasn’t worth it, because it invalidates something that we treasured then so much. Our egos and sense of self-worth simply won’t allow us to go there, and none of those close to us are willing to call us out on our emotional claim.

      Especially regarding traumatic brain injury, I’d like to apply truth serum to those with early-onset dementia and ask them if they think their current condition was worth what brought it on their cognitive disability, particularly in light of the burden upon spouse, family and larger community.

  • giorgio547

    It may be tough being part of society’s evolution, but it is unavoidable. Your column reminded me of so many accepted practices of the past; lions eating Christians, soldiers spraying their own troops with Agent Orange, having to actually touch second base on a double-play, the list goes on.

    More importantly is the consideration of the bottom line in all of this. Science is caught-up, but it will not have its intended effect until it is good for business. When enough fans and players protest the state of the game, then business will “feel their pain” and things will change.

    “Evolution is the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations.” – Wiki

    • art thiel

      Of course, you’re right about the bottom line being the driver. But before that point is reached, Sherman and his peers have games to play. They will play them better and more safely if they understand where they are in the evolution and no longer waste energy on lamentations of the lost style, which only feeds fans’ resentments.

      • giorgio547

        Understanding where you are in evolution is a feat that everyone attempts but rarely accomplishes – you are getting close! Best p.s I think you over estimate the wisdom of the average fan. Follow the lead of Howard Lincoln on that one…

  • dcrockett17

    Exactly the right tone Art. Good work, as we’ve all come to expect. I particularly love the perspective you bring about other industries. As I’ve said a million times, Seahawks fans have an absolute EMBARRASSMENT of riches in terms of coverage–both traditional media and fan coverage.

    That said… Although your response to Sherman’s logic seems on point–I’ve not read his column yet–your acknowledgement of the NFL’s cynicism should be more than just a throwaway point. The league just settled a case where they have successfully buried information that is undoubtedly useful in the quest to make the game safer. They are actively hiding information that would provide researchers with needed historical perspective on head trauma. That goes directly to the NFL’s credibility on safety matters, and frankly, to the league’s integrity.

    It’s one thing to say that SOMETHING must be done to improve safety. Who could disagree? It’s another thing entirely to say the NFL’s specific actions effectively enhance safety. That’s an open question. Now, the NFL has effectively lowered the target on hits–particularly in the open field. That is undoubtedly good.

    But, the NFL’s arbitrary, or worse, reputation-based punishments for contact that is *literally* unavoidable cannot possibly increase safety. Those moves are transparently about not getting sued, and nothing else. Add to that, the league’s clear intent to add regular season games, its insistence on Thursday night games to prop up its fledgling network, and its pressuring of playoff-clinching teams to play starters in meaningless games, and the “safety” message is just about completely undermined.

  • jafabian

    I wonder if there’s any former players who’ve thought that life in the NFL was more physical, more violent than they were led to believe?

    • art thiel

      Unlikely. The violence is typically what most crave.

  • RadioGuy

    “From coal miners to cops to firefighters to soldiers to truck drivers to deep-sea divers to astronauts to construction workers to crab fishermen to chemical factory workers, all understand the same point that Sherman makes: We knew the job was dangerous when we took it.”

    I’m all for coming up with ways that make football a less injurious game to play without watering it down into a version of two-hand touch or flag football, but I’m also all for respecting the fact that the men who are actually playing it understand what they’re getting themselves into and accept that when you play a physical sport (be it football, ice hockey, rugby, etc.), you’re going to get hurt, sometimes badly, and you may even end up in a hospital ward. This isn’t golf or bowling.

    Good column, Art. These are good questions to something with no easy answers.

    • art thiel

      The game has already been watered down from its pre-2010 violence. Has it bothered you or anyone enough to stop watching? Didn’t think so.

      The physical risks in football (and other sports) have been known, understood and accepted by most parties forever. But brain trauma was largely unknown, hidden or lied about, the damage irreparable and more hurtful for family members. There is no medication or prosthesis for a broken brain.

  • Jason

    To me, the difference between the hazardous professions you mentioned and football is that football is a game. Not many dream of being coal miners or chemical workers, and there are risks in space that astronauts assume and accept as uneliminatable. I skied for 15+ years in a way that most people would consider “extreme.” I am now paying the physical toll for that period, but have zero regrets. I wasn’t even paid to take risks but did so anyway. These guys have an oppurtunity to get rich playing a game most of us loved as playing as children. I dont think the love and passion diminishes as they age, it only intensifies. The inherent risks come with the territory. I think they have perspective that you could never have because playing is not an option for you. I love your writing and wish you had more radio time Art, but I think you whiffed for failing to mention the aforemetioned most relevant factor. Its a game.

    • art thiel

      Of course it’s a game, Jason, but it’s also a $9 billion a year industry that pays million dollar salaries. It’s a business. The fact that more people want to play it than work in mines doesn’t change the fact that the NFL knew about brain trauma for years but lied about its consequences to its employees. That’s why they paid $765M to former players — it was hush money.

      Do yourself a favor, Jason: Read “League of Denial” or watch the PBS Frontline special of the same name.

      • Jason

        I have watched it Art.
        Also, I am not arguing for or against any new rule implementations. I am just saying that you whiffed because you are knocking a players perspective.
        As vital employees, they are the most relevant stakeholders of this particular business, and their opinions should be valued. As consumers of this business, you and I individually are not as important to the conversation as to how to move forward with that business. Lets face it, we watch even with the recently implemented rule changes.
        With that said, Sherman wants to play the game he loves as he as always known. The NFL want to protect their asses moving forward, and who can blame them. They will need to find common ground and will need very little help from us to find it.

        The NFL has blood on its hand for prior offenses and should be held liable to a further extent than the chump change they paid out. Sherman is smart and should better realize he may feel, really, after his football career. Nothing is certain moving forward, but sorry, you are not very relevant the decisions they will make moving forward.

        • art thiel

          Jason, I believe I agreed with parts of Sherman’s take, and was not diminishing the value of his perspective, only that he and most players are missing a point about the inevitability of change when a maturing industry is confronted, via protest or litigation, with its inadequacy in protecting, as you called them, the relevant stakeholders. He doesn’t like the rules changes, but as Pete Carroll said this week, there is no choice but to adapt. Many are. For a player to resist the inevitable change is to hurt himself and team objectives.

          You’re right that the NFL has blood on its hands, and also that Sherman and colleagues are certainly free to choose to follow their passions. You’re also right that nothing is certain. But it seems clear already that Sherman’s further suggestions in the MMQB column about dodging detection of concussions in favor of playing time is not what a parent of a football player, a neurosurgeon or a smart coach wants to hear from a respected player.

          • Jason

            Agreed on all points Art. Thanks for the cordial dialogue.

            Seperately, please consider this: To me, a persons “no regret” mindset is not a product of ego nearly as often as you think. I lived life to its fullest for a period of my life pursuing an passion that was paramount to all else. I am now Junior at the UW school of business pursuing a bachelors in B.A. with an Accounting Option. Many do what I doing right out of high school. They miss there chance to pursue a passion because the body becomes less physically capable as we age. Other contributing factors also prevent that pursuit (kids, career, laziness etc.). When I say no regrets, its genuine and is not a product of ego whatsoever. For that reason, I believe many others are genuine as well. A formulaic life is not for all, and unless you stray from that formula in your life choices it may be difficult to relate and or have similar perspective.

          • art thiel

            Fair point, Jason. Choices do get made for a variety of reasons, not just ego. The distinction in my experience with former football players is that there has always been a conscious, relatively informed acceptance of physical injuries that will haunt later in life. Less known throughout sports was the long-term consequences of BTI because the short-term consequences did not often linger.

            The information, and the shock value, about Webster through Seau, is only just now on the outskirts of acceptance by current players. They are still applying the “no regrets” mantra taught them from childhood by older examples, to a consequence far more serious than a permanent limp. My lament is that unless players with the profile of Sherman adopt a more realistic view, we will still have players hiding their BTI symptoms until today’s 8-year-olds who are taught the right way to play (he wrote, hopefully) become pros.

            As far as what to teach linemen who thud each others’
            heads 50 times a game without much notice . . . I have no idea.

          • Jason

            I see the distinction, and it is very valid. I was recently thinking the same thing about lineman, but have also heard that offensive lineman are regarded as some of the most intelligent football players.

            Thanks again for the back and forth. This is the first time I have communicated with you in anyway, but I have followed you since I was a kid. You and Gas were awesome together, and I dream that someday the two of you will get a full-time radio show together. I grew up in Western Washington and you are a treasured fixture in this region to many people. Keep it up Art and hopefully we can do it again.

            I have shared sportspressnw.com with many friends who have moved from the area so they can get a much desired local touch on sports journalism. Terry Blount over at ESPN is not really cutting it.

  • Roslyndawg

    Logging is also one of the most dangerous jobs. I worked in the woods for about three years and was very careful and very aware of the possibilities. I have two acquaintances in the same community who worked in the industry about the same time and are now in wheelchairs for life. I doubt they say they’d do it all over again!
    Some of the former football players who do say they would do it again may have suffered TBI to the point where they are not really in shape to objectively evaluate that claim.
    I wonder if soccer is going to be next. it can’t be good to “head” the ball hundreds or thousands of times in one’s life–you know, the brain bouncing around in the skull just a little each time……

    • art thiel

      The notion of “no regrets” is usually a function of ego. To admit as a middle-aged adult that the sport you loved wasn’t worth the toll makes one seem foolish.

      Soccer is paying much attention to the NFL concussions. There is the header issue, but often more dangerous impacts are head to head, then head to elbows, knees and ground.

      The day will come when soccer players wear helmets.