At a crossroads

In the wake of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher’s shocking murder-suicide Saturday, a score of reactions have emerged from different perspectives.

Some mourn a friend and relative who was dealing with numerous demons and ended his own life too soon. Others vilify Belcher for taking the life of his girlfriend, calling him a “monster,” “scum,” and words that can’t be reprinted here. Others focus on the tragedy of a young girl left without parents. But another area worth discussing is the National Football League’s response.

Not the immediate response. The decision to play the game was absolutely the right one. The sight of Chiefs and Panthers players joining together to pray before the game reminded us that in times of hardship, strength and comfort comes from holding on to some measure of normalcy.

One of the most important outcomes of this horrible situation, however, is that the NFL may finally be forced to confront problems of player safety and head trauma.

Several former NFL players have committed suicide in the last few years. Many of them have exhibited signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease resulting from repeated blows to the head, according to researchers at Boston University. BU researchers received 13 professional football players’ brains from 2008 to 2010, according to an ABC News report. Twelve of the brains exhibited evidence of CTE.

Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt told ABC News that Belcher did not have a “long concussion history,” but that does not mean the athlete avoided head trauma. Belcher may not have had CTE, and reports suggest he may have struggled with alcohol and painkillers, but he played an intensely physical position, even by professional football standards. Linebacker is all about stepping into an open gap and meeting a ballcarrier with overwhelming force. Look at the model linebackers in the league today. Players like Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis and James Harrison set the standard, making their living by delivering highlight reel hits. It is possible that the repeated force of Belcher’s 193 career tackles contributed to the mental problems he suffered.

Belcher’s friends told Deadspin that after the Chiefs’ last game, Belcher was “dazed and was suffering from short-term memory loss.” That sounds like a concussion. If he, like so many other players, hid his condition out of a fear of missing time and potentially losing his spot, shame on him. If team doctors hid his condition, shame on them.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell must intervene. Since he took the post from Paul Tagliabue, Goodell has made his mark with strict enforcement of personal conduct policies and with his (mis?)handling of the Saints bounty situation. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the defining issue of Goodell’s commissionership will be player safety and concussions. So far, he has found a hypocritical middle ground, sounding the trumpet of safety while also pushing for an 18-game season. But there’s no more time for Goodell to waffle on safety.

The suicides of Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, both of whom had CTE, were chilling, but those men had been retired for many years. In 2012 the stakes are higher. Like Belcher, Junior Seau did not have a “history” of diagnosed concussions, but he took his own life in May. With Belcher’s death, an active NFL player has committed suicide during the season. This issue cannot and should not be ignored any longer.

The NFL has made some strides in the field of concussion awareness — for example, by requiring players diagnosed with concussions to meet increased testing standards before returning to action. But the league will not make real progress until it changes the mentality of players out to “take someone’s head off” or hiding in-game symptoms to avoid missing playing time.

Goodell and the league sit at a crossroads with two apparent options. The choice boils down to the league’s true priorities.

If the NFL is serious about making the game safer for players, it must make real reforms — namely, levying harsher penalties against players who make illegal or dangerous hits. Suspensions, not fines. James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers makes $5.6 million this year, which averages out to nearly $350,000 per game. Another $25,000 fine means little to someone making that kind of money, but suspensions might grab his attention. Such a policy would likely cost the league viewers, which in turn costs serious money, but if the goal is player safety, Bill Simmons’ hypothetical “Touch Football League” might become the reality.

But if when push comes to shove the league actually cares more about its television ratings and its bottom line, Goodell has another option available: Take the reins off. On the surface it seems unpalatable, but if the league doesn’t have a real commitment to safety — if it is more concerned with how many people pony up ticket money or subscribe to NFL Sunday Ticket — why bother pretending to make the game safer? There’s already a reasonable argument that players know they’re signing up for a risky sport, so why not just drop the pretense of safety? The downside of such an approach is that more athletes will endure trauma-induced mental illness and depression, which could lead down a very dark road.

So, Roger, you can make real progress toward player safety — at the risk of your precious ratings — or you can embrace the gladiatorial aspect of football and continue to rake in the money at the risk of the long-term health of your players. Pick one: You can’t continue to have both.

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