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Will the NFL be safer this year?

September 4, 2014 at 8:44 PM EDT
The NFL has been heavily scrutinized for encouraging gameplay at the expense of player safety. As the league kicks off its 95th season, new rules are aimed at preventing injuries and reducing contact. Jeffrey Brown discusses the league’s adjustments with DeMaurice Smith, the Executive Director of the NFL Players Association, and Dr. Matthew Matava of the NFL Physicians Society.
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JUDY WOODRUFF:  Finally tonight:  The most popular sport in America tries to come to terms with one of its biggest problems, concussions and the impact of violence on its players. But will changes in the game be enough?

Jeff is back with that.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Earlier this week, the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks practiced for tonight’s kickoff of the new NFL season, one that will no doubt come with spectacular thrills, and, inevitably, the injuries of a violent game.

The league is introducing several new rules aimed at preventing head injuries, including tighter regulation of illegal contact between defenses and wide receivers and a prohibition of hand-to-face contact.

In fact, the NFL’s Health and Safety Committee reported yesterday that, overall, concussions were down 13 percent last season from the previous year, and the number of concussions specifically suffered from helmet-to-helmet contact decreased 23 percent.

But thousands of athletes and family members allege that, for decades, the league hid information linking head trauma to an array of neurological diseases like dementia.

Last year, the NFL, while admitting no wrongdoing, reached a proposed $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 former players suing over concussions suffered on the field. In July, a federal judge gave preliminary approval. A final decision is expected after a November hearing.

Former players and families can also elect to opt out of the settlement. And, yesterday, the family of late San Diego Chargers star Junior Seau did just that, saying it would pursue a wrongful death suit against the league. Seau committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 43. Posthumous tests showed he suffered from CTE, a degenerative brain illness caused by repeated blows to the head.

And more on the concussion and violence issue now.

DeMaurice Smith is executive director of the NFL Players Association, the players union. Dr. Matthew Matava is team physician for the Saint Louis Rams and president of the NFL Physicians Society. He doesn’t speak for the league itself.

We did ask the league to join us tonight, but they declined our invitation.

DeMaurice Smith, let me start with you.

What are the most meaningful changes that your players will experience that fans will see tonight aimed at preventing head injuries?  Give us an example.

DEMAURICE SMITH, Executive Director, National Football League Players Association:  Well, hopefully, it will be nothing that fans see, because the best likelihood or the best result that we can hope for is that none of our players are in head-to-head or head-to-ground contact that could cause a concussion.

I do think that most of the most telling or important changes will be things that might be imperceptible to fans, for example, having neutral sideline concussion experts on the sideline, increased doctor accountability to their players, increased guidelines that limit contact, as we have for the last three years, during training camps.

Those are the things that are most likely going to have an impact on decreasing concussions by decreasing exposure to things that might lead to concussions.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Dr. Matava, you know, there has been so much talk over the years about the team physicians and the teams themselves didn’t do enough to get players off the field, didn’t take this seriously enough.

Were teams and physicians too lenient in the past?  And are there now specific rules and norms that will change that? 

DR. MATTHEW MATAVA, President, NFL Physicians Society:  Well, like all areas of medical science, the science behind concussions has evolved significantly.

I have been taking care of the Saint Louis Rams for the past 14 years, and the science behind concussion management and treatment and prognosis has changed considerably even during that time. It used to be several years ago where a player would be diagnosed with a so-called bell ringer. The standard of care was perhaps to let them go back to play without any known long-term consequences.

We now know that those perhaps milder injuries of concussions, if you can call one mild, can — may be linked to long-term problems down the road or certainly a higher risk of concussions.

But we have also known that, With this increased research that’s come down on concussions, there has been a vast change in the way physicians approach the injury, as well as how — the management. And the league is taking that seriously, as has the Physicians Society.

As Mr. Smith has said, probably the biggest change you will see this year in the field, you won’t even see. There’s about 27 medical people in an NFL sideline or in a stadium right now to evaluate and manage any medical problem that a player may have.

As he mentioned, there’s an independent neurosurgeon on the sidelines of both teams, both the home and away team. And then each team now has an unaffiliated neurosurgeon who has to clear the player before he’s allowed to return to play, even after he’s been cleaned by his own team physician.

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, well, DeMaurice Smith, all of these steps, and yet the players are bigger. They’re faster. The culture is still there that you have got to hit as hard as you can.

These are young guys, your players, who must feel immortal. How do you tell them to tone it down or change the way they play? 

DEMAURICE SMITH:  Well, I think part of the key — and the doctor talked about it — is, you don’t really tell them anything.

You make them a part of the process where they can actually impact the health and safety that is a part of their workplace. And what we have been able to do with the league and many of the things that the doctor’s talked about, those were collectively bargained. Those were things where the union sat down with management and said, those were the conditions that we want for our players to play safely.

So the things that have changed over the last few years have been great strides in football, especially when you measure it against sort of the arc of history in football over the last 50, 60 years.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Do you not think…

DEMAURICE SMITH:  But I’m happy to say that many…

JEFFREY BROWN:  No, I’m sorry. Go ahead.

DEMAURICE SMITH:  … many of the things were the result of collective bargaining.   

JEFFREY BROWN:  I just wonder, DeMaurice Smith, staying with you , do you think it will be easier to get players off the field?  Because the culture, of course, is still not to come off the field.

And what will happen when there are suspensions, because these hits will be inevitable?  There will be some suspensions of players who want to fight those suspensions.

DEMAURICE SMITH:  Well, every player is entitled to their due process. And that’s something that we will jealously and rightfully protect.

But I do think that the real goal here is, one, making players a part of the system to make the game safer, making sure that there are protocols that doctors and players follow to remove concussed or players who might be concussed from the field.

And I do think that one of the biggest changes, again, was the league and the players union coming to a conclusion that referees on the sideline can actually be involved as first-responders, that, if they see a player who could be hurt, that they can actually step in and ask that player to step to the sideline for the mandatory concussion protocol. Those are things that are going to make this game safer.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Dr. Matava, as you said, the science of concussion has changed. Awareness certainly throughout our culture has changed.

Is there a fear that — the game remains incredibly popular now, but is there a fear that perhaps more parents will not want their kids playing, that there will be a growing awareness of the kind of violence and repercussions, that the game may suffer? 

DR. MATTHEW MATAVA:  Certainly, there’s an increased awareness from parents.

I see it in my practice in Washington University all the time, parents asking about football risks, not only to their — for concussions, but also for other parts of their body. But they also asked me if I would let my son play. I told them that I did let my son play. But I would never tell a parent what he or she should do for the management of their own kids in the sports that they participate in.

I can also tell them that the game has been safer now than it’s ever been before. I played high school football. I had three concussions, and we didn’t even diagnose them in those days. And so I try to reassure parents that great strides have been made and advances, not only in football in concussion management, but also in sports medicine, through the use of MRI, through arthroscopy, and the advances that come with medicine in general.

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right. All right. We will leave it there.

Dr. Matthew Matava, Saint Louis Rams, DeMaurice Smith of the NFL Players Association, thank you both so much.

DR. MATTHEW MATAVA:  Thank you.

DEMAURICE SMITH:  Thank you.

The setup portion of this video report has not been published online due to rights restrictions.