Keeping Concussions Out Of Football? There's No Guarantee

"Concussion," a movie starring Will Smith as a forensic pathologist who discovers devastating brain trauma in some football players, makes its debut Friday. Jets linebacker Trevor Reilly doesn't plan on seeing it, but he does have an idea that will undoubtedly make the NFL safer.

Guaranteed contracts.

"If they wanted to stop concussions, they should guarantee the money," Reilly said. "Or if they wanted to stop people from playing hurt as much."

Unlike baseball and basketball, professional football players don't generally have fully guaranteed contracts. If a player gets cut, that player doesn't have to be paid, no matter the announced length of the deal. The NFL contract as generally constructed is a one-way street; players are beholden to a team but the reverse does not apply.

There are some caveats. The percentage of guaranteed money in football contracts has been rising, often in the form of signing bonuses. Players also have access to an injury settlement if they are cut while they are still hurt.

Yet given the high rate of injury and the size of an NFL roster, guaranteed contracts are a health and safety issue when you factor in the nature of concussions.

Unlike baseball and basketball, football is a full-contact sport, and on any given Sunday, an opponent can launch at a player's helmet from 15 feet away and remain in the game, as Odell Beckham Jr. did against Josh Norman on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

The NFL touts a youth-level program called Heads Up Football -- which includes instruction, proponents say, about how to keep the head out of a tackle -- but during every NFL game, on-field microphones pick up the unmistakable crunch of helmets slamming into one another.

Players don't make NFL rosters for keeping their heads out of the game, they make them for delivering effective hits and avoiding penalty flags. For players such as Reilly, a seventh-round pick in 2014 with three kids, each game is a tryout to keep a spot on the team.

It's the reason why plenty of NFL players wouldn't self-report a head injury, and the reason that players push themselves to get back on the field before they are fully healed from an injury.

If the NFL wants to protect players, those players need to financial security to report head injuries as they happen, and heal for the full amount of time required. Until contracts are guaranteed, that's just not the case.
Jane McManus

When Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger self-reported a concussion in a game earlier this season, it was groundbreaking. You could almost hear how NFL fans and analysts were getting used to that word, "self-reported." Last May, Roethlisberger signed a five-year deal with the Steelers worth $99 million base, and $108 million with incentives. Of that, $36 million is guaranteed and there is a provision to guarantee the year of salary in the case of a season-ending type of injury.

That's the kind of financial security that encourages a player to volunteer health information. Since a concussion can't always be observed, self-reporting is crucial in addressing the issue.

The way the NFL deals medically with potential concussions has improved dramatically. Jets offensive lineman Brian Winters said if a player walks into the trainer's room saying he's fatigued, the staff will work him up. "They come right over and check you out," he said.

But each missed game -- and each concussion takes an indeterminate amount of time to heal -- gives another player a chance to prove himself. That happened to Alex Smith in San Francisco when he sustained a concussion in 2012 and was replaced by Colin Kaepernick. Anyone else can lose his starting position after a concussion. Teams simply aren't incentivized to give a player more time to heal, because the value in a player is short-term.

So here we have the movie "Concussion." Winters said he doesn't plan to see it, either. And really, what is the point of going to see a movie about the damage injuries can do when the current system isn't set up for a player to be truly forthcoming about an injury?

Guaranteed contracts would be more costly for owners, but they are a piece of the health and safety issue. If the NFL wants to protect players, those players need financial security to report head injuries as they happen and heal for the full amount of time required. Until contracts are guaranteed, that's just not the case.

"I'm not reporting," Reilly said. "And I guarantee that's the way a lot of guys in the locker room feel."

Other things on my mind this week:

Steph Curry is advocating for gun safety in a new PSA for Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. His voice is joined by those who lost family members to bullets, including other players such as Joakim Noah, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. Noah actually stopped his six-shooter celebration after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. The ad, done by Spike Lee, will air nationally Friday. The NBA once again showing it is the most forward-thinking pro league.

Donald Trump's "disgusting" comment took me back to the playground days of boys talking about girls and their cooties. Frank Bruni broke it down for the New York Times, and Bernie Sanders added the perfect retort.

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