In his weekly column for SI.com’s MMQB found here, Richard Sherman took a strong stand against some of the rules changes that have complicated his professional life as a Seahawks cornerback, writing that “the NFL is the problem” regarding player safety and that active players understand and accept the risks in a collision sport.
Sherman wrote that he does not contemplate long-term brain trauma consequences “(any) more than I think about the food I’m enjoying today, which could be revealed in 30 years to cause cancer or a heart murmur or something else unpredictable.
“Those are the things you can’t plan for, and the kind of optimism I have right now is the only way to live. And the next time I get hit in the head and I can’t see straight, if I can, I’ll get back up and pretend like nothing happened. Maybe I’ll even get another pick in the process.
“If you don’t like it, stop watching.”
Sherman didn’t plow new ground in his argument. But given his increasing profile, obvious intelligence and weekly national media platform provided no other active player, his position can be influential.
When he misses a key point, however, it’s reasonable to throw a flag for illegal use of logic.
I agree with him that the new restrictions on permissible contact are, for watchers as well as players, frustrating and confusing, and can lead to players “being forced to play with indecision, and indecision gets you hurt in this game.” I also agree that the motivation for the NFL to settle injury claims with former players and to restrict contact among current ones is merely a cynical attempt to thwart litigation past and future by saying, “Hey, we care!” (Sherman’s phrase).
But none of those consequences change the truth that nearly every field of human endeavor that involves significant risk to body and/or mind goes through through some sort of reformation when discoveries are made that suggest safer ways to do things.
From coal miners to cops to firefighters to soldiers to truck drivers to deep-sea divers to astronauts to construction workers to crab fishermen to chemical factory workers, all understand the same point that Sherman makes: We knew the job was dangerous when we took it.
But every one of those industries has undergone a series of changes, often only after confrontations and litigations by widowed spouses, orphaned children, poisoned consumers and random victims over the businesses’ ignorance, negligence, profiteering or corruption that led to unnecessary injuries, deaths and tragedies.
After almost every episode, affected people and other observers say some version of the same thing: Why did no one see trouble coming?
It is often the case that someone did. In fact, many do see bad things coming. But for many who see, they reach another conclusion first: Yeah, but the money’s too good to do it another way, and it won’t last long.
That’s exactly what Sherman and many active players are saying when they are caught at the outer edge of football’s reformation: You’re messing with my gig, man! It’s predictable and understandable. It’s the same thing coal miners said when federal safety standards closed some mines and forced others into massive, expensive changes. Twenty years later, a new generation of miners are grateful for changes that will allow them to see and play with grand-kids.
Were some changes wrong, even unnecessary? Of course, just as football referees overreact to rules just as new to them, and make mistakes that change game outcomes. But every industry undergoing reform does it in fits and starts, rarely smoothly.
Sherman wrote that head trauma sustained now is no different than eating food now that in 30 years will be discovered to cause cancer. What that analogy overlooks is that at least some of the food he eats now was made safer by the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency that President Theodore Roosevelt signed into existence in 1906 in part because sanitation and hygiene practices in food preparation were so bad that thousands were dying annually from something they ate. Death by hot dog is not such a threat any more.
That’s not to say that everything the FDA does is right, just or effective. But I am willing to say there are a lot more people around these days to read what Sherman and I write thanks to a national conscience that is curious enough to pursue higher standards and practices so that risks to long, productive lives are minimized.
Regarding football, what this layman thinks the research into brain trauma has told us so far is this: Hitting one’s head hard and repeatedly over years is a bad thing.
The question that raises is this: Is there a way to prevent or reduce these incidents’ frequency or severity so that a retired player such as 43-year-old Junior Seau doesn’t feel compelled to kill himself?
Far as I can tell, we don’t know. Science inevitably will lag behind the urgency for an answer. But until science reaches conclusions, the void will be filled by resistance and confusion, because the only immediate actions available are abrupt changes the game’s rules to reduce the risk.
I don’t expect Sherman or any of his peers to like it. What I would hope is they can appreciate it, not because the NFL ordered it, but because much science, history and common sense have prevailed in other businesses where dangers were well known, too, to its risk-takers.
Twenty years from now, football players and fans will look back on the game played prior to 2010 and say, “Why did no one see trouble coming?”