Don't Kill The Mellinger

The NFL’s clumsy attempt to tell you it is limiting head injuries

In this Aug. 4, 2012, file photo, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, center, poses youth football players from the Akron Parents Pee Wee Football League after they received new helmets in Akron, Ohio.
In this Aug. 4, 2012, file photo, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, center, poses youth football players from the Akron Parents Pee Wee Football League after they received new helmets in Akron, Ohio. The Associated Press

The NFL invited sports media folk like me to this small conference room to make a point about the fight against concussions but what ended up happening is a glimpse into both the honest difficulties and bumbling execution of this mission.

To make a point about how much better they are now in finding and diagnosing concussions, league representatives showed us this clip, essentially daring us to find the concussion.

I don’t know why the league chose a playoff game from the 2011 season to make its point, but it did. I’m dividing the clip into two parts because the .gif creator I use only goes up to 10 seconds and, besides, it actually works well for our purposes here.

Also, please pardon the poor quality of the video. The wifi in this hotel is less than awesome.

Anyway, here’s the snap:

Fairly routine play in the organized chaos of the NFL, right?

Here’s the second part of the video:

This is the point in the presentation where Matt Matava, the team doctor for the Rams, is going for the big reveal.

“Did you see it?” he asks.

The guy behind me says out loud what I’m thinking: “Yeah, 28.”

“Well, the broadcasters of this game didn’t (see it), either,” Matava says, sticking with the script.

Except, well, I don’t know, isn’t it pretty clear? Not in the first clip, I’ll grant you, but in the second part of the play you can clearly see No. 28 on the Giants, running back Danny Ware, on his knees, lose his balance getting up, fall down, get helped up by a teammate, and then stumble toward the sideline with what was later diagnosed as a concussion.

How exactly was this hard to spot?

The league has taken some steps to spot concussions, and for that, they deserve some credit, even if the steps started far too late and only after societal and financial pressure.

But the fact that they used that particular play (from the 2011 season) to make a point to the media that they’re so much better in spotting concussions is an unintentional window into just how much progress remains to be made.

The league also pushed some statistics that there were 25 percent fewer concussions in the 2014 season than 2013, and 36 percent fewer concussions from this past season to 2012. The biggest decrease has been in concussions caused by helmet-to-helmet hits, and shoulder-to-helmet hits, which the league is happy to see since those have been the focus of their rules changes.

Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, calls this “a culture change,” and that there has never been a safer time to play football.

The problem with all of this, though, is that the NFL long ago lost credibility and the benefit of the doubt with this issue. There are all sorts of questions about the accuracy of those statistics, and how concussions are treated and reported.

That was highlighted in an AFC playoff game when Ben Roethlisberger and Heath Miller appeared to suffer head or neck injuries and did not come out of the game for anything close to the amount of time it takes to perform a concussion test.

The NFL is (finally) dedicating money and energy to researching head injuries, and how an inherently dangerous game can be made safer. The league is acting in self-interest here, of course, because the future of the sport depends largely on youth participation — which appears to be dropping, at least anecdotally, with parents increasingly concerned about safety.

In some ways, the motives of the league’s movements in more recent years should be irrelevant. If you help an old lady across the street because you think her granddaughter is good looking, well, you still helped an old lady across the street.

But the NFL’s problem is that being so slow, and reacting only when it became a PR problem rips away its credibility going forward.

As the video showed, the league is trying to take credit for what might generously be described as the bare minimum, bragging about improved technology it uses to spot what the naked eye can see as obvious concerns.

But, then again, the NFL also knows that a lot of fans only pretend to care about this stuff, and many don’t even do that. There were, maybe a dozen or so reporters at the health and safety press conference. Something like twice that many showed up for the officials’ presser that was highlighted by questions about PSI.

And then hundreds packed the convention center’s biggest ballroom for Katy Perry who, wearing a skirt-and-blouse number with footballs on her boobs, promised that “nothing in my performance will be deflated.”

On with the show!

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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