WHETHER THE league acted to quell public unease or out of concern for the welfare of players, this season has been a particularly brutal one. Players had suffered at least 53 concussions through the middle of October. The Eagles have had six, including an embarrassing one for the league in Week 1, when linebacker Stewart Bradley, woozy from a hit, tried to wobble off the field and staggered to the turf as if he'd been plied with spiked punch. What made it worse was that within a few minutes Bradley reentered the game for several plays after being cleared by Philadelphia's medics; only later did they diagnose a concussion and sit him for good. It was Bradley's first concussion, and he said Eagles staffers made sure he was symptom-free for several days before allowing him back on the field. He returned in Week 3. "They say the number of concussions has increased," Bradley said last Friday, "but I think it's the awareness that's increased. In the past they didn't have the study of the ex-players who had passed away so they could look at the long-term effects of having concussions over years of playing in the NFL. Those weren't hot topics even four or five years ago the way they are now."
The NFL has gotten religion regarding concussions. In the past year commissioner Roger Goodell has met numerous times with retired players, many of whom suffered from the kind of dementia McKee studies. Last spring the NFL made a $1 million donation to the Boston University School of Medicine's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, of which McKee is a co-director. On Oct. 20 the Sports Legacy Institute, founded by former pro wrestler Chris Nowinski and Dr. Robert Cantu in 2007 to explore the effects of brain trauma on athletes, presented Goodell with the organization's annual Impact Award, recognizing the league's efforts to promote safety in youth football.
So Goodell is keenly interested in how to make the game safer—if it can be made safer. The fact that there is so much antileague sentiment in the locker rooms is not going to deter him. "If it changes the game for player safety," Goodell said at the Sports Legacy event last week, "that's a good thing."
"If it took one bad weekend for us to get here, then so be it," said Nowinski, a former Harvard defensive tackle and professional wrestler who retired from the WWE in 2003 after suffering a concussion. "Players are too fast and too strong to think they can hit each other in the head over and over and think they'll keep walking away unharmed."
PROBLEM IS, many helmet-to-helmet blows are perfectly legal. Because it's within the rules to hit an open-field ballcarrier in the helmet under certain circumstances, and it's standard operating procedure for players at the line of scrimmage to knock heads, many players greeted the league's reaction last week with shrugs. Pittsburgh's Clark pointed to a hit by Browns running back Peyton Hillis on Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. "Hillis runs straight at Troy, [lowers his head] and earholes him with his helmet," said Clark. "Troy can't play the rest of the game because he's woozy. Nobody says anything about that."
In Owings Mills, Md., last week, Ravens linebacker-end Jarret Johnson pulled his helmet out of his locker and held it by the face mask. There were long gouges across the crown of the purple helmet and numerous jagged paint stripes—some of them silver, the colors on the helmets of the Patriots, Baltimore's opponent the previous week. When it was suggested that perhaps two thirds of his collisions with offensive players involved the helmet, Johnson said, "Absolutely. That's all it is, helmet-to-helmet. Receivers don't have any of these marks. We do. And it's constant. Every play, every play, every play. All game long. You're squatting, rising up and hitting with your head. All game long."
Adds Brooking, "Let's keep it real. When I take on a 245-pound fullback, and we hit each other hard, that's probably a concussion. And that's every week. Has it affected me? I don't think my short-term memory is as good as it was 10 years ago, but that's football. I wouldn't change anything."
The NFL knows there's little it can do concerning helmet contact between linemen, or on running plays, that wouldn't radically alter—and maybe diminish—the game. Consider these recent efforts an attempt to affect what can be controlled. Two years ago the league's competition committee adopted new language about hitting a defenseless receiver, and last March that language was further refined. "If a receiver completed the catch and didn't have time to protect himself, the defensive player couldn't launch into him in a way that causes the defensive player's helmet, face mask, shoulder or forearm to forcibly strike the receiver's head," says competition committee co-chair Rich McKay of the Falcons.
That's the violation for which the league fined James Harrison. In doing so, Ray Anderson made it clear the defensive player is responsible for where he hits the receiver, even if the receiver ducks. So when Harrison's forearm caught Massaquoi in the head and neck, Harrison was guilty.
Harrison said the next morning he was considering retirement, but with four years and $22.6 million left on his contract, he thought better of it and returned to work last Thursday. He played on Sunday in Miami and had four tackles in a 23--22 Steelers victory.