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After a protracted labor dispute, that thankfully for NFL fans everywhere didn’t involve the loss of regular season games, the NFL Players Association and the league are battling eachother again.
This time, the battle is about the punishments levied by the Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league office on Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Anthony Hargrove, and Will Smith.
The league office suspended Vilma for the entire 2012 season, while the rest received smaller suspensions. Vilma was hit the hardest because he reportedly offered $10,000 in cash to anyone who could take out Brett Favre or Kurt Warner in the Saints’ playoff matchups against the Minnesota Vikings and the Arizona Cardinals. Hargrove loses eight games for reportedly lying to league investigators about the bounty system.
The NFLPA is working to defend the players against the punishments handed down yesterday by the league office. They argue that they were not granted access to the supposed evidence the league used to justify the suspensions.
Regardless of whether they were granted access to the information, the players association has a choice to make. In the last 15 months, three former NFL athletes have killed themselves. Their names are Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, and most recently, Junior Seau.
An examination performed on Duerson’s brain, which he requested in his last written words, showed that he was suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. The disease is a result of repeated head trauma, something NFL athletes are continually exposed to.
Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy’s website says the disease is associated with “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.”
For many years in the NFL, concussions went underreported. Players would be foggy or dizzy, but encouraged to go back out and play. In Seau’s case, he wouldn't even a partial hamstring tear wouldn’t even keep him off the field, so there was very little chance he would have ever told anyone he was a little dizzy.
No one conclusively knows whether CTE played a role in Seau’s decision to end his own life. Speculation to that effect is just that.
The NFLPA worked hard during the labor negotiations to ensure that players receive better care after their careers are over. The NFL has worked relentlessly to try to find a way to eliminate as many concussion-inducing elements of the game as possible. (Or, at least since 2010 and the weekend Roger Goodell decided to fine James Harrison, Dunta Robinson and Brandon Meriweather a total of $175,000 for helmet-to-helmet hits.)
The problem is that the league had to know there was an immense danger to players since at least 2007, when HBO’s Real Sports did a piece about Chris Nowinski, Andre Waters and the devastating effects of repeated concussions. It took Goodell three years to seriously crack down on unnecessarily violent hits. Three. Years.
So now, the situation is that the NFLPA is busy defending the players who, as much as they care to deny it, took part in a program that was designed to intentionally cause injury to other players, when they should be working to find a way to ensure that no player finds himself where Junior Seau did. The union has to protect its players, but there also has to be a priority structure. At the first order of business for the NFLPA should be protecting and helping players who may currently experience, or be at risk of experiencing, the symptoms and effects of CTE.
The league is even more at fault, and the main reason for their hard and swift reaction now is directly related to the massive lawsuits from former players who are dealing with concussion symptoms. The players claim that the league didn’t properly protect them. Damages in these lawsuits could cost the league an exceedingly large amount of money. Small wonder the league wants to suddenly appear very tough on illegal hits and unnecessary violence.
The result of all of this is that the league is making an issue out of concussions mostly out of self-interest. Appearing to act swiftly to prevent as many concussions as possible will be the league’s only defense. Meanwhile, the NFLPA is focusing on protecting the wrong players.
That doesn’t mean Vilma and the others shouldn’t have the backing of their union, they certainly should. It just means that the union would do well to try harder and focus more energy on protecting players who are in danger of experiencing the horrors of life with CTE.
No mother should have to go through what Junior Seau’s mother went through yesterday. Her screams of agony over the loss of her son echoed on ESPN’s airwaves, and forgetting the pained look in her eyes will never be easy. The time for the league and the union to stop their incessant, childish bickering is now, before another player takes his own life because neither side was there to support him when he needed it most.
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