ESPN’s Mike Wilbon is among the chorus agitating for the NFL to walk back its increasingly strict helmet-to-helmet collision policy, whereby offending players have been getting fined and might soon see suspensions. But Wilbon is also a Chicago Bears fanatic. So I have to wonder what he has to say about this.
Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon: “My memory’s pretty much gone. I walk into a room and forget why I walked in there. … I’m going through some studies right now and I am going to do a brain scan. It’s unfortunate what the game does to you.”
This subject touches on some of the reporting I did in the wake of the Verne Gagne / Helmut Schmidt tragedy.
The reason the NFL is getting so Draconian isn’t because, as Tony Kornheiser is fond of saying, the league wants to protect its workforce from itself–even though it is true that players would rather live with the risk of having their brains turn to mush later in life if they can earn the millions they can earn on the field now. Even McMahon, who brags that in the good old days players with head injuries were told to “tape an aspirin to their helmets and get back in there,” complains that the new enforcement regimen is “ruining the game.”
McMahon is wrong. These new enforcement procedures are absolutely the right thing to do–but the NFL is not being unselfish in doing it. The NFL is taking steps to protect itself from its players, not the players from themselves. Because even though they say they are willing to take risks on the field now, in 15 years when they no longer can find their way back and forth to their mailboxes, some players would certainly sue the league for everything it is worth if the league didn’t take firm steps. Because the science is compelling, the anecdotal evidence is mounting and the cat is out of the bag. Playing in the NFL causes brain damage.
In other words, the league is doing what it’s doing now to save the game.