It seems my experience polling several Cincinnati Bengals about the NFL's concussion and player-safety policies was similar to what many of my colleagues also encountered when asking players on the respective teams they cover about the hot-button issues.
"True or false," the first question went, "you would play in the Super Bowl with a concussion?"
Eighty-five percent of the players from each team in the league who were asked that question said, "true." Of the Bengals I anonymously polled, 90 percent said they would play for the Lombardi Trophy with concussive symptoms.
Most times I posed that question, it was met with with an immediate follow-up inquiry.
"How serious is this concussion that we're talking about?" I was quickly asked.
For the sake of getting an answer, I had to routinely implore the players to think about what a moderate concussion might feel like and add that to their deliberations. That was my way of finding some middle ground, I guess. It didn't need to be too severe, I figured. But not too minimal, either.
Of course, thanks to its new policy on head injuries and the potentially amended settlement it is facing, the NFL would consider symptoms of even the most minor, mild or subtle concussion to be the same as those of a more serious concussive condition. Minor or major, in the league's eyes, it's all the same. But for grown men told to reflect on possibly playing with one in the biggest game of their lives, some conditions had to be provided.
Once they thought about having a moderate-feeling concussion, the Bengals polled quickly admitted they would play for a league championship with one. One player who said he wouldn't play in the Super Bowl with a concussion cited uncertainty about his long-term health and wanting to do what he can to ensure his physical safety during and after his career.
Speaking of safety, the second question I posed had to do with precisely that.
"True or false: The NFL is committed to player safety?"
It was at this point players were usually reminded that they were taking part in an anonymous survey, and that their individual answers wouldn't be revealed. Much like the concussion question, this one gave them pause, too. After a few seconds ticked by, they eventually answered.
Perception-wise, many of the players began, the NFL does in fact appear committed to player safety. The public relations campaign and rules changes the league has trotted out in recent years has proven that fact, they said. It looks like the league wants to have impact not only at the professional level, but even at the Pop Warner level, too. They applauded that.
But perception, to many of them, didn't meet reality. To them, the reality is that they are, at least defensively speaking, paid hitmen, allowed to do whatever was necessary to stop and stymie their opponent. Some of the more thoughtful Bengals who were asked this question mentioned how they felt the increasing speed, power and violence of the collisions in the game have seemed to correlate to the increase in the sport's popularity. For that simple fact, they believe that as clean as the league might try to make the game, it still will be every bit as physical as it has always been.
That's why only two Bengals polled said they felt the NFL was committed to player safety. They were part of the 40 percent across the league who said the same. The other 60 percent agreed with the rest of the polled Bengals who said they didn't think the NFL was committed to player safety. If those players were able to see perception and reality as one in the same, they likely would have agreed with the 40 percent.