Pulling together some thoughts and perspectives amid the aftershocks from some very sad news… .
The revelations emerging over the past week were dark and ominous: that Bears Hall of Famer Gale Sayers is fighting dementia, that perennial Pro Bowler Lance Briggs is dealing with symptoms he considers part of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Those cast a pall over anyone involved with the game, one that deepened exponentially when Dwight Clark disclosed that he is suffering from ALS. Because this kind of news is coming out too frequently, it sometimes loses the tragic pointedness just because it's far from the first time.
Clark didn't expressly link his condition to the universe of impacts he lived in for his nine NFL seasons, all with the 49ers, saying only that he suspects that playing football was involved.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the NFL will be considering rules changes at the owners meetings next week, one of which raises the prospect that players could be automatically suspended for certain "egregious illegal hits."
All of this together is recalling to mind a couple of conversations that cause me to wonder whether players may in fact hold a very big key to dialing down even a little bit the hits that are ultimately having the cumulative effect of ruining lives.
An interesting casual conversation one day in the Halas Hall locker room left ripple effects with this reporter long after the chat.
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Concussions were in the news at the time, as they and their consequences too often are, and the young member of the Bears' offense and I were talking about the whole business. I remarked that with all the deeper, more serious issues with head trauma, I did not understand why players were not moved to fury by blows to the head, the way they often are when they believe a player has gone after their knees. Knee injuries shorten careers; head injuries shorten lives, so why not the same anger reaction?
"Intent," he said. "Somebody goes after your knees, it's on purpose. Blows to the head just happen."
They do just happen. But does that go far enough? The 2015 Vontaze Burfict hit on Antonio Brown? Going further back, Jack Tatum's blow that paralyzed Darryl Stingley? "Just happen" doesn't get it.
Every training camp, officials come through with videos and presentations to players, coaches and media on rules changes and interpretations. After one of these, veteran referee Ed Hochuli told me, "You can tell intent. You know the guys, and you know the hits."
The players know. And they should be holding each other accountable, as accountable for a shot to the head (more accountable, in fact) than for something like twisting ankles (which Steelers and Panthers went public criticizing Burfict for doing at different times). Maybe because collisions involving heads are just an inescapable part of a collisions sport, they're taken as just part of the cost of doing football business. Who knows?
The point isn't to even remotely suggest that players can put an end to head trauma. This is in no shred of a way blaming the victims. And evidence is that the community of athletes is indeed becoming a force in the right direction, demanding that brain injuries be taken with the seriousness they should be.
But blows to the head are potentially lethal, and as too many stories keep coming out, stories of Briggs, Clark and Sayers, the hope has to be that even in the maelstrom of games, those get the attention at the time just the way a leg-whip or ankle-twist does.