Last week Arizona Cardinals wide receiver and Pro Bowl special teams player Sean Morey admitted that he covered up his concussion symptoms so he could play against the Chicago Bears the previous Sunday.
In one sense the news wasn't all that surprising. After all, N.F.L. players play hurt all the time. It's their job. It's part of the gladiator culture of the league and of the game of football.
What is surprising, and extremely disappointing to those of us in the youth sports community who have long asked that the N.F.L. take the lead on concussion education, is that Morey, recently named co-chair of the players' association concussion and traumatic brain injury committee, did exactly what he has been repeatedly telling college and high school players not to do: lie and downplay concussion symptoms.
To make matters worse, he refused to even say how many concussions he has had during his 10-year pro career (other than to tell the AP that it was "more than I'd like to admit"), which itself sends the wrong message: the most recent consensus of concussion experts is that providing a complete concussion history is critically important for proper concussion management.
Morey's pathetic and totally inadequate excuse for his hypocrisy? That as an N.F.L. player he was obligated to play, no matter what. "No player wants to take a day off or get a free lunch," he told the AP. He claimed players were "hard wired to do their job" out of "loyalty to their teammates and their owners." In other words, Morey claims he didn't really have a choice: he was being paid lots of money by the team to play and so he had no choice but to play, whether injured or not, and he couldn't really help himself because the play with pain attitude was so ingrained in his very identity as a football player.
But the same cannot be said for high school and youth football players. They aren't being paid lots of money (college players are another matter; while they aren't paid a salary per se, what with the free boat they get in terms of scholarships and other perks in big time Division I football they might as well be). They don't have owners to whom they are accountable. They do have a choice: play with concussion symptoms and risk catastrophic injury or death, at worst, or, at the very least, risk long-term mental health problems like depression and impaired memory and thinking skills, or sit out until all symptoms have completely disappeared and a qualified health care professional has cleared them to return to play. Sadly, the longer they play football it seems the more the culture takes over and the more the instinct for self-preservation seems to take a back seat to the win-at-all-costs, don't let your teammates, coach and community down, attitude.
Was it naive of us to think that the Morey would practice what he preached when it came down to crunch time, when he had to actually follow his own advice?
It seems increasingly obvious that professional football players and the owners for whom they butt heads every Sunday and Monday (and occasional Thursdays and Saturdays) for money simply can't be counted on to set the right example for the tens of thousands of youth and high school football players who suffer concussions every season, far too many of which, like Morey's, never get reported to the coach, the athletic trainer (if there is one), or even their teammates, friends or parents.
All we can expect, I'm afraid, from the N.F.L. and its players are, at best, the same mixed, muddled and contradictory "Do as I say, not as I do" messages that Morey tried to sell us this week along with a subtle and often not-so-subtle reinforcement of exactly the kind of play through pain, take it like a man, macho culture that is such an integral part of the N.F.L.'s culture and, frankly, for its mass appeal.
Want more proof of the mixed messages that continue to come from the N.F.L. and its players? How about the statements, just this week, from another pro player, Washington Redskin running back Clinton Portis, made after he suffered a concussion that knocked him unconscious in the first quarter of a game against the Atlanta Falcons; a concussion that kept him sidelined for yesterday's game against his former team, the Denver Broncos.
On the one hand, Portis seemed to have no problem sitting out the game. "I'm not going to go out just because it's the Broncos and put myself at risk and not give myself the proper recovery time," he told ESPN Radio. But in the same breath, Portis non-sensically dismissed the mounting scientific evidence that concussions (and even repeated sub-concussive blows) can lead to severe long term health problems for former N.F.L. players because the findings were somehow suspect because they came "from people who never touched a football field." Injuries, even of the long-term variety, he said, are part of the game: "In football, it's rare that you are going to come out unscathed."
The lifeblood of the N.F.L., of course, is players like Morey and Portis willing to put everything on the line (even their long term health) for fleeting fame and fortune. Where would the league be if its players didn't play hurt, if they were honest about their injuries, if they didn't try to cover them up? What would a bunch of sissies who reported every injury and, god forbid, took themselves out of games voluntarily do to the league's brand, its product? Where would they be if they weren;'t constantly sending that same message to players at every level, from youth through college: that if you want to make it in the pros you have to have that same mindset, that, by the time you get to the pros, as Sean Morey put it, you have to be "hard wired" to do your job no matter what?
Where do we go from here? Expecting the N.F.L. to educate the million plus kids who play football about the risks of concussion is like expecting tobacco companies to warn teenagers about the dangers of smoking. It's like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.
As long as the N.F.L.'s attitude - and that of its players - is, "Do as I say, not as I do", the answer, I'm afraid, is "Nowhere, man."