Lost in the news of the Final Four, the start of baseball season, the Ryan Leaf wretchedness and, in Seattle, the hubbub around a proposed arena, was word that former Washington State quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien is losing a bit of his mind.
Not figuratively. Literally.
He has to record conversations with his girlfriend “so we can go back … when I vehemently say, ‘I did not say that.”‘
He can’t remember short-term things. Besides memory loss, Rypien, 49, suffers from depression, which was a large part of the story behind the suicide in August of his 27-year-old cousin, Rick Rypien, an NHL enforcer who played for the Vancouver Canucks.
“The common person will say, ‘They knew what they were doing. They knew the risk that was involved,'” Rypien said. “And my answer is, ‘Yes, so does every policeman and every fireman in the country. And they wouldn’t face the same criticism that these ballplayers are facing.'”
So Rypien March 31 joined many of his fellow retired players in suing the NFL in federal court in Philadelphia, public reaction be damned. If NFL owners and management were forced to swallow a 55-gallon drum of truth serum — that might not be enough — they would admit they are scared spitless about the burgeoning legal threat to the industry.
That’s why commissioner Roger Goodell walloped the Saints and their bounty system so hard he knocked them out of the 2012 playoffs. That’s why in the middle of the of the 2010 season, Goodell abruptly ordered rules changes that attempted to diminish the violence of hits to the head — the kind that Saints assistant Gregg Williams drooled about in his now-infamous pre-game speech that went worldwide last week.
Claiming the NFL didn’t do enough to inform players about and protect them from head injuries, the retired players, including former Seahawks star running back Curt Warner, the No. 3 pick in the 1983 draft, are a gathering storm. Lawyers in the cases believe the number of former players soon will reach more than 1,000.
It’s impossible to know the outcome of the pending litigation — although for an image-conscious league, it would be a ghastly task to argue in court against their own former heroes who are sub-functional — but Rypien told the Associated Press that a legal win is secondary.
“If for some reason this doesn’t go in favor of us, we’ve at least reached out and shown there’s a group of concerned former athletes struggling with their own issues that wants to build awareness, so that no one else has to go through what we’re going through,” he said. “If that’s the only thing we get out of this, that’s a win. We can make some changes, so these guys (playing now) don’t have to endure what some of us are enduring.”
An attorney who has submitted several of the lawsuits, Craig Mitnick, told AP, “The players relied on the league as their medical experts, and the league withheld medical information that could have improved all of these guys’ lives.”
While the league never comments on pending litigation, the counter argument comes from, not surprisingly, current players. While few endorsed Williams’ specific calls to hurt players, there is a desire to dismiss or dilute his words as just a part of the game.
Williams’ rant was recorded before the Saints-49ers playoff game in January, two years after the NFL had begun investigating the Saints’ bounty system and a year after they were ordered to knock it off. Yet, amazingly, one of the 49ers’ players, cornerback Carlos Rogers, attempted to defend Williams even though he targeted Rogers’ San Francisco teammates.
“It wasn’t a bounty system,” Rogers told San Francisco radio station KNBR. “I’m close to Gregg, and I’m not trying to be biased. He’s one of the coaches I admire and would always love to play for. But it wasn’t a bounty system.”
The hell it wasn’t. But Rogers, as with numerous other current players, tried to defend it by saying it was a players’ idea of long standing, and the rhetoric was standard motivational stuff heard throughout the NFL.
That misses the point. There’s a difference between encouraging max effort and intimidation, and naming opponents with previous injuries, including concussions, and targeting them for game removal.
“The part that is an issue is the other 10 percent,” Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe told ESPN.com, “where he specifically talks about targeting ACL’s, twisting guys’ ankles in the pile, and trying to hit a concussion victim in the head again. That’s why Goodell has to come down so hard on this; you don’t want that spreading.”
Rogers and most current players have too much invested in the game’s status quo to be objective and honest about a gruesome practice, even if it is a macho tradition going back decades.
First, players live in the moment, not 30 years from now; second, they don’t want to be seen as sissies; third, they enjoy the violence of the game nearly as much as the fans; fourth, they don’t want to say anything that might be criticism of coaches in general or in particular; and fifth, they already resent the changes made for safety that they believe diminish the game.
All understandable, to a point. But the rising tide of scientific evidence connecting repeated blows to the head to brain damaged borders on the irrefutable. Today’s players can’t see it, or don’t want to see it. They have a few years to make millions, and that, for most, trumps all.
For the retired players, the NFL may be able to get away with the response, “We didn’t know.” But ignorance is no excuse now, as its rules changes and Saints’ punishments show.
Goodell has no choice but to change the course of the game. Although he and others will cloak the transformation in altruism, the fact is the NFL is getting its pants sued off. Besides the monetary losses, the greater damage is that once the truth gets into the mainstream, the league will find fewer and fewer players willing to sustain the empire.
Who knows? Maybe even a few fans will be offended.