The NFL's latest safety measures face resistance from players

Eric Weddle rolled his eyes. The Baltimore Ravens safety was two weeks into his 12th NFL training camp. This one, however, brought a twist. Along with 2,800 other players around the league, Weddle was trying to adapt to the NFL's wide-ranging "call to action" on head and neck injuries.

As he left the practice field, Weddle carried a new helmet. He didn't like how it feels, but the league and the NFL Players Association banned his previous model because of poor laboratory performance. His head swam with what he considered impractical video instructions from league headquarters. He took a deep breath. Then he let it fly.

"I think the NFL is trying," Weddle said. "You don't want to fault them for putting in the effort to finding the best helmets and keeping players safe and all that. But the biggest problem I have is this: How do you not consult with the players and have them agree with it? You make these changes. Well, we play the game. How are you going to make these cultural changes without asking us? They think that it's going to make the game better and safer. It's not."

The NFL's new helmet rule, a centerpiece of its efforts to reduce a league-record 291 diagnosed concussions in 2017-18, has been the story of training camp. Players from around the league have railed on its ambiguity, intent and feasibility. Their concerns will be evident Thursday, when the preseason schedule begins in earnest and officials begin throwing flags for reasons that might appear confusing.

But there are deeper issues at play, ideas I tried to drill down on during interviews with more than a dozen players over the past week. Their opinions about the helmet rule aside, do they share the NFL's urgency to lower concussion numbers? Can they see past the league's dark history of quashing concussion concerns? And what does it mean if the game can't (or won't) change to limit brain and spine injuries?

I found their answers thoughtful and complex. This sample, drawn mostly of veteran players from seven teams, was not unappreciative of the league's efforts. The players simply questioned whether the initiative will work and who will be blamed if it doesn't. Some were resentful that they have been put in position to execute what they think is an impractical solution. A few would prefer to make their own decisions about brain health.

"A lot of [players] would rather take their hit up top because they can live to see another day rather than have a knee injury," Washington Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger said. "If I was an offensive player, I would want to get hit right in my face because I signed up for football. I didn't sign up for basketball. I didn't sign up for soccer. I signed up for football.

"Long term, [a decline in health] is the nature of the game. If you play football for a long time, you are going to have those things happen."

'Guys are going to end up broke'

This spring, the NFL launched a three-pronged attack to reduce concussions for 2018. It teamed with the NFLPA to ban the use of 10 helmet models -- six immediately and four others for 2019 -- that engineers hired by the league determined performed poorly in testing. It added two new rules, one to prohibit the lowering of helmets to initiate contact, and another to reimagine the kickoff. And it provided each team with detailed data to help stem a rise of concussions in physical training camp practices.

The helmet rule, which carries a 15-yard penalty, a potential fine and possible ejection, has received outsized attention. Some players can't envision a recognizable form of football without regular instances of lowered heads.

"I get it," Redskins tailback Chris Thompson said. "You're trying to make the game safer. But football is a violent sport, and you are not going to be able to take that away from it. You can say, 'I'm going to fine you guys every time you put your head down.' And guys are going to end up broke. It's a natural reaction sometimes."

While it's reasonable to think that only the most obvious cases will be flagged, the rule is broad enough to suggest that any occasion is fair game. In the view of Pittsburgh Steelers guard David DeCastro, there is a lowered helmet contacting another player "all the time."

DeCastro added: "It's the nature of football leverage. You're taught to get your head underneath another guy's chin. I understand what they're trying to do, to make it safer. But I don't know how much you can take away from this game before it stops being football."

The league has distributed position-by-position videos, narrated by head coaches, to promote techniques that comply with the rules. The videos are clear but not practical, Weddle said.

"There's no question it's hard on [the players]. But they need to adjust. We're not doing this to do anything other than make the game safer." Rich McKay, chairman of NFL competition committee

"There are some plays on the videos where I'm like, 'There is no way you can make a tackle that way,'" he said.

Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL competition committee, has heard similar complaints before. Sitting in his office this week at the Atlanta Falcons' training facility, McKay said the league fully expects some growing pains but is convinced that players will settle in with the rule.

"There's no question it's hard on them," McKay said. "But they need to adjust. We're not doing this to do anything other than make the game safer. It's for their own protection, realizing that they are still going to say, 'I'm playing the game the way I always played.' Well, there was a time when players were allowed to head slap. I can't imagine that Deacon Jones and those guys were still head-slapping two years later because it was illegal.

"We know there is going to be calls this year that people are going to complain about it. There's always that, and I feel bad for the officials because they're the ones that always get the scrutiny. But the adjustment period will be shorter than people think. I think the players understand that ultimately this rule, and the rules that will develop over the coming years as we see this rule evolve, are all driven by one simple idea, which is the helmet needs to be used as a protective device -- period."

'If you really cared about player safety ...'

In 2013, the NFL settled a class-action lawsuit that alleged that it hid information about the long-term dangers of concussions. Without admitting fault, the league agreed to pay an uncapped amount of money overall to retired players who are suffering from the effects of football-related brain injuries.

That settlement -- along with the 2015 movie "Concussion," which chronicled the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) -- was a dark reminder of the league's motivation to tamp down public discussion of brain injuries. That history leaves some players suspecting ulterior motives this summer. Meanwhile, anecdotal stories about a decline in youth football participation are concerning for the future of the sport.

"I didn't think that [lowering the helmet] was a big problem," said Chicago Bears linebacker Sam Acho, who is a vice president on the NFLPA executive committee. "In all reality, I think a lot of this is for PR. We talk about, and the NFL talks about, player safety. But if you really cared about player safety, and you really cared about the well-being of players, maybe you guarantee all players' contracts.

"So I think this is more about PR. You want moms to keep their kids in football so the game keeps going. So you make all these rules. Look at the concussion settlement. They said, 'We'll settle, as long as you say we have no culpability in the concussion deal.' It's all about PR. I don't think it's about player safety. This rule is under the guise of player safety, but more than anything, it's about PR."

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, a member of the competition committee, said it has been "pretty clear" that player safety has been atop the league's agenda for several years. He winced at the suggestion that the league's motives were less than pure.

"I would not be involved in it if I thought it was," he said.

Indeed, the NFL's data contradicts Acho's assessment. The league contends that players have increasingly lowered their helmets in recent years, ignoring a long-taught technique that instructs them to keep their heads up and "see what they hit." An NFL-hired biomechanical engineering firm discovered that last season, helmet-to-helmet hits were responsible for 46 percent of all concussions. In 2005, that figure was 33 percent.

Meanwhile, computer models provided scientific confirmation of what was long considered a matter of intuition: that players with their helmets dipped were more likely to suffer brain and neck injuries. Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a catastrophic neck injury last season after lowering his helmet to make a tackle. Still, Weddle said, the Shazier injury was one tragic incident in years and years of play.

"If they really cared about safety, they wouldn't have Thursday night games," Weddle said. "Are they really concerned about the players? I'm fortunate enough to play this game, and I'm grateful. But I think they're always trying to quick-fix things. Let the game be the game. The game is fine. It's been around for so long. And it has been successful a certain way. We don't need to keep trying to change it. ... They're trying, but I don't know how hard they're trying."

Thursday night games, many players contend, risk their health because of the short recovery time from the previous week. In January, the NFL acknowledged that injury rates on Thursday nights in 2017 were higher than the rates in other games for the first time since the league began releasing data in 2014.

'Everything evolves'

JC Tretter is entering his sixth year in the NFL and his second as the Cleveland Browns' center. He has maintained a sober outlook on the changes.

"I think eventually people will realize that the NFL is not changing the core of football," he said. "We're just trying to make sure that guys aren't going to be in trouble 30 years down the line."

Agreeing to play football means different things to different people. For Swearinger, it means accepting the risk of future brain injury. Tretter isn't as tolerant.

"I don't get behind the 'You know what you signed up for, and you know the risks' thing," he said. "I don't think that we say that for coal miners, that there should be a lack of safety for them because they knew the job. Obviously, we're very well paid, but I don't think any amount of money is worth these horror stories you hear.

"We love playing the game, and it's given us a lot. It's given us a lot of popularity and fame and money and the ability to play the game we love, travel the world, see a bunch of cities. But there is no reason not to continue to try to make the game safer. Just because you're getting a lot of great things out of it doesn't mean there needs to be a huge drawback."

"I think eventually people will realize that the NFL is not changing the core of football. We're just trying to make sure that guys aren't going to be in trouble 30 years down the line."
JC Tretter, Browns offensive lineman

Tretter isn't the only player I encountered who was encouraged by the NFL's efforts this offseason. Many understand, as McKay said, that the helmet and brain health will be an annual focus for future rule changes as well.

"I know some die-hard fans, and some die-hard, old-school guys are upset about it," Browns left tackle Joel Bitonio said. "But I think everything evolves. Trust me, I practice every day. It's just as physical when someone doesn't bury their head in me as when they do.

"If you want young kids to play, and you want the game to continue to grow. ... I know the game is at a good point still, and we're making money. But I think, just make it safer. I'm not saying we have to play flag football out here. You can still make good, hard tackles with your shoulders. You can still use your body to do things. But the brain is the most important part of the body. Protect the brain and in turn protect the spine as well, keeping your head out of it? I think that's going to be worth it."

In truth, everyone understands that concussions are caused by a wide variety of factors, not all of which are covered by any of this offseason's initiatives. But, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said, there is every reason to try.

"It might sound trite to say," he said. "But any concussion we save is important to us."

'How does he know what's best for me?'

When Swearinger suggested that long-term health problems were the "nature of the game," I asked him if he specifically meant issues with the brain. Swearinger said he thought there were ways to protect brain health other than rule changes.

"I got a hyperbaric chamber a couple years ago," he said. "The doc told me they made those things for people that had brain surgery. I feel there are a lot of things that can help."

Indeed, there have been studies but no firm conclusions on the efficacy of such tools for recovering and maintaining brain health after concussions. But Swearinger's point was a larger one, echoed by Weddle. They want to make their own decisions. Weddle said he was upset to learn that his previous helmet, which he liked and wanted to continue using, was banned. He compared it to regulatory obstacles he faced building a house in San Diego.

"I had to pass through so many hoops and hurdles to get my house built as far as restrictions," he said. "Finally, I was like, 'Look, I own this land. If I want to build my house on this land, it's my choice. If it burns up, it's my choice. So why do I have to do all of this for you, to protect you, when it's not your money?' It's my head. It's the helmet I want, that's done well for me.

"How does [an engineering firm] know what's best for me?" he asked.

'It just depends on how they're going to call it'

There are plenty of veterans who think the intensity of the current angst will pass, as it has with previous controversial rule changes.

"Eventually I'm sure it will get resolved," Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. "I know I like my money, and I like spending it on other things than giving it to the NFL for fines. I'm going to work to keep my head up and make it safer. There is life after football. We can't play football until we're 60 years old. There's life afterward. So if you want to play with your kids and your grandkids, that's the best way to get there."

Said Detroit Lions safety Glover Quin: "It'll be like everything else. We have to adjust and play the game."

In a worst-case scenario, however, NFL players will have been told that their brain health is dependent on their complying with a rule that can't be followed. Much will depend on whether officials call every instance, including in interior line play, or just the obvious and blatant examples.

"... I don't know how much you can take away from this game before it stops being football."
David DeCastro, Steelers offensive lineman

Ravens coach John Harbaugh appreciates what he considers a return to the old-school techniques of tackling with shoulders and keeping the head away from first contact. He also knows players well enough to empathize with their position.

"It just depends on how they call it," he said. "If you hold them accountable for something that is physically impossible to be held accountable for, then that would probably not be good."

And what if that happens? What if all of this is an exercise in confirming that concussions cannot be materially reduced in this game? More players than you might think are braced for that possibility, and that was perhaps the biggest takeaway from these interviews.

"I hope they are trying to protect us and are hoping that we come out of this game in our right minds," the Redskins' Thompson said. "But I think with football there are going to be things that happen that you can't stop from happening. You can tell guys not to put your heads down. But that's what you've done forever. I get it with this CTE stuff that is going on. None of us want that issue. But some things we understand as players come with the game of football. I've had all these injuries and surgeries. I wouldn't have them if I didn't play football.

"I know it's going to happen."