Off the Grid: Two views of Concussion, a Q&A with Leigh Steinberg and more
This week in Off the Grid: My thoughts on Concussion and why I waited as long as I did to see it, a conversation with longtime agent Leigh Steinberg on the ups and downs of his career, a deep dive into the history of the 3–4’s rise to prominence, and a surprise fill-in for Dean Blandino with everyone’s favorite NFL head of officiating otherwise occupied.
I needed to wait a while to see Concussion.
Yes, I knew the movie opened Christmas Day, but I instead saw Spotlight—Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy’s incredible film about the Boston Globe and how a few determined reporters uncovered a massive child molestation scandal in the local Catholic Archdiocese. It was worth it. I think Spotlight is the All the President’s Men of our generation, and I’d encourage anyone with an interest in the importance of journalism to see it.
Meanwhile, Concussion weighed on me through the busy holiday week. I knew I had to see it, but I also felt dread. I was worried that Hollywood would dumb down the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu and his CTE diagnoses, how the NFL tried to silence and shame him, and how the progress the NFL claims it’s made in concussion research and prevention isn’t nearly as impressive and far-reaching as Roger Goodell and his acolytes would have you believe. I had also read the New York Times report indicating that Sony Pictures softened the movie to appease the NFL, and given the ways in which the NFL has handled concussion reality over the decades, that simply added to my disgust.
Last week, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was asked whether he’d seen the movie. His reply was perfect: “I have not. I see a concussion movie every Sunday. For free. Don’t need to go to the theater.” I felt the same way, though I take none of the risks Sherman takes, and the closest I’ll ever come to a concussion risk in my current profession is if one of my copies of Total Football falls on my head. Still, I was worried that I’d seen this movie before in multiple iterations, based on the research and writing I’ve done, and my strong opinion that the NFL has misled, and continues to mislead, as much as it possibly can on this subject.
It took someone with a more detached and objective opinion than mine to see the truth of the movie, and that someone is my girlfriend, Kellini Walter. We saw the movie last weekend, and Kellini, who is a communications consultant, gave me her perspective. Kellini is also a mother and a memoir writer, and a very smart person—much, much smarter than me in most respects. She’s a football fan, but not a “football person” in the traditional sense—she’s not immersed in the game the way someone would be if it was her job. And it was her take on the movie that gave me a better sense of what effects Concussion may have on the viewer who sees it and hasn’t leaned in too close to see it from all sides. I asked her to share her thoughts in this space, and then I’ll add a few thoughts of my own. We talked about it a lot, and wrote back and forth after the fact.
Like sports agent Leigh Steinberg (whose interview you can find farther down in the column), Kellini understood that this was a movie about Dr. Omalu, as opposed to a no-holds-barred exposé, which is what I still want to see on a global platform. Not that this left either one of us satisfied.
“One thing that bothered me about the movie was its narrow focus on Dr. Omalu,” she wrote. “In reality, a majority of the CTE story has played out beyond the scope of his work and there are many important facts the movie doesn’t address.
“After I saw the movie, I wanted to know what was truth and what was fiction. My research uncovered several inaccuracies. The details of Mike Webster’s death were embellished—he died in a hospital, not homeless in his truck. There’s a scene where Dr. Omalu is prevented from participating in a NFL concussion conference in Chicago, but in fact he was never invited to present his findings. Family members and colleagues of Dave Duerson criticized that his portrayal was fictionalized. Additionally, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, former Steelers physician Dr. Julian Bailes took issue with Concussion’s portrait of longtime Steelers neurosurgeon Joseph Maroon, whom the movie shows resisting Omalu’s work.
“More specifically, I was disappointed this movie didn’t touch on any of the complicated questions surrounding CTE. How can it be diagnosed and treated? What are the risk factors? What are the implications to the future of the game? And how can the NFL keep players safe? Hopefully though, this movie will energize people to continue to push for these answers.”
My take? When we left the theater, I was still mad. I went on this rant (as I tend to do) about all the things it didn’t cover. How Dr. Maroon came off far too sympathetically. How the involvement of Goodell and Tagliabue in covering up what the league knew was barely covered. How Dr. Elliot Pellman, the Guadalajara-educated rheumatologist (no, he’s not a neurosurgeon) who did everything possible to deny the effects of head trauma as the head of the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, is still the league’s Medical Director. Pellman is in charge of the ATC spotters who are supposed to diagnose head injuries on the field. I mean, really. Where were all the stupid things Goodell has said about head trauma? Why was the concussion settlement glossed over at the end? Why wasn’t this more about the league’s malfeasance, its betrayal of the players who have made football great?
Who’s going to pay for this?
And that’s where where Kellini stopped me short. It was her view that the movie is out there, and questions will be asked that were not asked before, and that’s a really good thing. She also saw it more from the league’s perspective, the terror over what the truth would perpetuate. As much as I want the NFL to do what it should on this subject, and as much as I suspect that will never happen, Concussion is a truly important movie for the future of the league in that it’s one more way to prevent the NFL from trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, so to speak. There’s too much out there now—too much to know, and too much to say. We keep the NFL more vigilant—or at least more defensive—by creating different ways to get the message out there.
And in the end, that’s why you should see it, if you haven’t already. So that you can add to the discussion.
Q&A: Sports Agent Leigh Steinberg
Leigh Steinberg, well-known as the inspiration for the movie Jerry Maguire, has represented over 300 players in his career, including a record eight No. 1 draft picks. At one time, he had it all ... and then, he threw it away due to well-documented issues with money and alcohol abuse. Steinberg declared bankruptcy in 2012, entered a twelve-step program around the same time and has worked hard to set his life on a better path. In the last week, his new agency, Steinberg Sports & Entertainment, announced the signings of several draft-eligible players, including Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch. I spoke with Steinberg recently about how he turned his life around, and a few things you might not know about concussions and the NFL.
Doug Farrar: You’ve had a well-documented rise and fall, and I’d appreciate it if you could highlight the high points and the low point of your career.
Leigh Steinberg: I think the highest points were ... Standing on the field [following Super Bowl XXIX, when the 49ers beat the Chargers, 49–26] when Steve Young threw six touchdown passes. He was grinning as he came off the field, and having him hug me and tell me he loved me, and him saying, “The monkey’s off my back! The monkey’s off my back!” because he had lived in the shadow of Joe Montana.
A high point would be getting the work done to put the 145th single mother and her family into the first home they ever owned by making the down payment and having it outfitted. It was an illustration of our philosophy of what role modeling could do. It was a foundation I helped Warrick Dunn start called Homes for the Holidays.
Another high point would have been riding with Troy Aikman as he left the field after the 1993 Super Bowl, in which he was MVP, and his slow realization that his life had changed forever.
And the highest point would have been having the privilege of giving the presenting speech for Warren Moon at the Hall of Fame. He had been my client for 23 years, and inducting him as the first African-American quarterback in the modern era to be a member of the Hall of Fame. Having that person I’d loved, and gone through 23 years with, and sort of grown up with, and walked a long road with, bring able to present him.
DF: What was the low point?
LS: Watching the struggles of Ryan Leaf. Watching someone who had high promise and hope—watching his career and life disintegrate. Trying to get him help, and not being able to change the result.
DF: Now, in your case, you did change the result—your struggles with money and alcohol are oft-chronicled, and you got past them. What I would like to know is, how did you descend, and how did you find your way back?
LS: My dad raised us with two core values: To treasure relationships, especially family, and to try and make a positive difference in the world—to help people who couldn’t help themselves. That was the motivation behind representing athletes. Helping them to be role models, helping them into second careers, helping them to keep their dreams. And then, together, through messaging and charitable programs, trying to make a real difference in the world. It was also issues like concussions, the Sporting Green Alliance, domestic violence. ... You know, when Lennox Lewis had a public service announcement that said, ‘Real men don't hit women,’ it could trigger imitative change in rebellious adolescents in a way that a thousand authority figures never could.
And when I was at the depths of struggling with alcohol, I had an epiphany that I was failing both of my father’s admonitions. It was a moment of proportionality—I wasn’t a peasant in Darfur, I didn’t have the name Steinberg in Nazi Germany, I didn’t have cancer or a disability—so what excuse did I have not to try again? So, I surrendered to the fact that I was an alcoholic and started on a 12-step program and put sobriety first. I made a commitment that if I could be sober and a good father, everything else would be a blessing.
DF: Have people been inspired by your story?
LS: I’ve been public about it. And I’ve been public about it in the hope that people still struggling might see some glimmer of hope in my journey. This last week, and the announcements of this week’s signings ... there were thousands of responses from people across the country.
DF: You and I have talked about your work with concussions, and your consulting role in the movie and all that. What’s your history with the NFL’s concussion process, and what are your thoughts about the movie now that it’s out?
LS: Well, let me recount this: Back in the 1980s, I had a crisis of conscience. It was when I was representing half the starting quarterbacks [in the NFL], and they kept getting hit in the head. And when we’d go to doctors, and ask how many concussions were too many, and when should [the players] retire, they didn’t have answers for us. So, I had a concussion conference here in Newport Beach in the 1990s, and we had the leading neurologists from across the country. Players like Steve Young and Troy Aikman and Warren Moon and Drew Bledsoe and Rob Johnson came. And at the end of it, we issued a whitepaper that made a series of suggestions: Neurologists on the sidelines, a standardized regimen of diagnosis and sit-out periods, a renewed focus on helmetry ... and not much changed.
So in 2007, Warren Moon, the Concussion Institute and I held a summit again, in Los Angeles. One of [the neurologists] was Bennet Omalu, who talked about chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The neurologists reported that three or more [concussions] caused an exponentially higher rate of Alzheimer’s, ALS, premature senility, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and depression. So, I called it a ticking time bomb and an undiagnosed health epidemic. We now know that every time an offensive lineman hits a defensive lineman, it produces a low-level sub-concussive event. An offensive lineman can walk out of football with 10,000 of them, none of which have been diagnosed, none of which the player is aware of, and the aggregate of which almost certainly does cause brain damage.
If 50% of the mothers in this country know these facts and tell their teenage boys, ‘You can play any sport, but not tackle football,’ it won’t kill football—it’ll just change the socioeconomics. The same people who box, or do UFC, knowing there’s a risk, will be the people who play football.
I met with [Concussion writer and director] Peter Landesman about a year ago. I read the script, and I gave him some suggestions. Concussion is the story of Bennet Omalu. There are those who wish it was more hard-hitting, but it’s not a documentary about concussions. It’s the story of a man’s life against the backdrop of this concussion issue. I believe that it will, like the death of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, or the concussion lawsuit, be another catalyst for change.
I’ve been helping companies, because there’s now a profit motive to creating solutions in all the categories of prevention and treatment. There’s a new helmet from Tate Technology that uses coil and compression to displace and attenuate the energy field so it doesn’t go into the head. They’ve got it up to 60% [diffusion], and they think they can get it up to 90%. Solutions like that will go to the root cause.
There are movements like Practicing With the Pros that are counseling no tackle football before ninth grade—just flag—and that hitting at the high-school and middle-school levels be taken out for the off-season and limited during the season. That’s become law in states like California. There are better diagnostic devices on sidelines now that can pick up a sub-concussive hit and keep that player out of play. There’s research going on with nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals that can ultimately heal the brain. Some people advocate hyperbaric oxygen. Clearly, in the stem-cell research, those same researchers who believe we’re three to five years away from a cure for Alzheimer’s—it’s the same cure that would work for a concussion-damaged brain. There are moves that we, and the NFL, could be helping to fund to make the game safer.
I don’t want to have my life’s work be to enrich the bankbooks of clients who will go on to have dementia.
History Lesson: How the NFL adopted the 3–4 defense
It’s amazing to think of it in today’s era of multiple fronts, but from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, most NFL teams ran various iterations of the 4–3 defense developed by Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry in the 1950s. Base defensive concepts were just that: base. When he was the Bengals’ offensive coordinator in the early 1970s, Bill Walsh talked about how he’d use simple motion concepts with his tight ends to completely screw up linebacker reads. That’s hilarious in a day and age when you have 230-pound linebackers drafted specifically for their ability to cover seam routes, but that’s where the league was in those days.
In the later days of the AFL, you would see a bit of schematic variety. The Chiefs often ran enormous tackles like Buck Buchanan straight over offensive linemen instead of in the gaps with some different personnel looks, and they had the kind of middle linebacker in Willie Lanier who could expand on those concepts. The Raiders used to take end/tackle Dan Birdwell and drop him back to the second level in certain concepts (mostly pass defense). And the Dolphins of the early 1970s used 3–4 concepts in their famed “53” front.
However, it took two men to take the straight-up 3–4 base defense to the NFL: Chuck Fairbanks and Bum Phillips. Both men coached in Oklahoma before they hit the NFL—Fairbanks was Oklahoma’s head coach from 1967 through 1972 before the Patriots hired him in 1973, and Phillips was an assistant at Oklahoma State before he was hired as the Oilers’ defensive coordinator in 1974 and promoted to head coach in 1975. It’s no surprise that the impetus to bring the 3–4 to the pros came from two men who spent time in that state, as Oklahoma coaching legend Bud Wilkinson is the man most often credited with the invention of the 3–4 base defense, and Fairbanks learned it directly from Wilkinson.
Both men saw advantages in using the new formation. The 3–4 required certain types of players not ideally suited for a 4–3 and vice versa, which allowed the Patriots and Oilers to scout a wider base of the players they wanted.
Phillips took over an Oilers team that was largely bereft of great defensive talent and turned things around quickly. The 3–4 was key to that, and the Oilers rose from 18th to fifth in scoring defense in 1975.
“It was a move we had to make because of the depth on our team,” Phillips told Tom Danyluk in The Super 70s. “We could find four good linebackers—even if we had to use free agents. But you can't find many really good defensive linemen, and we only had two. And if you only have two, you’d better play a 3–4 rather than a 4–3. If you’re stubborn and stick with a 4–3, then you’re in trouble."
Phillips also asserted that it was Oilers outside linebacker Robert Brazile, not Giants outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who became the first specialized pass-rushing linebacker in pro football.
As for Fairbanks, he’d had enough of watching his defense struggle through a 4–3 in 1973, and he made the switch in ’74. It took longer for things to work out in Foxboro, but they eventually did, and Fairbanks never regretted going against the grain.
“At the time, everyone in professional football thought of the 3–4 as a prevent defense to be used in passing situations,” he told Danyluk. “Well, we had a shortage of quality, prototypical defensive linemen. They just weren’t around. 85-90% of all college teams at that time were using a three-man defensive line. There were far more linebackers available than top quality defensive linemen, so I built a defense that required less of them. I felt it was the only way we were going to have a chance to stop teams.”
By the end of the decade, the majority of NFL teams were using the 3–4 in some form or function, and it was this change that led to the modernization and expansion of defensive football. The popularity of the base 3–3 ebbed and flowed, but the ability to see a defense differently and open up the palette to different ideas allowed men like Bill Belichick, Dick LeBeau, Dom Capers and Bum’s son Wade (who runs a one-gap version of the 3–4 as a base concept) to throw their own schematic creativity into the equation.
Bro-fficial review: Jed York steps in
VP of Bro-fficiating Dean Blandino is very busy messing up the assignments for the NFL playoffs, so in his stead this week, 49ers CE-BRO Jed York has agreed to step in with his own point of view. As you may know, York held a press conference on Monday, attempting to explain the direction of his team’s front office after the firing of head coach Jim Tomsula after one season. There’s a general sense that the 49ers are in the wrong hands these days, and York wished to use this forum to convince you otherwise.
“BRO! DUDE! Did you SEE my man Jimmy T take his bro-parture like a true Bro-sa Parks? Dude is made of gold, for sure. Like a janitorial version of Mark Wahlberg. But, it’s important for the 49ers bros and bro-ettes [makes reference to his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, who owned the team from 1977 through 2000] to understand what we’re doing here. Like, there’s a total bro-tocol! We have this on lock! Ya, I know I have, like, NO CHILL when it comes to criticism of me, of GM Trent Baalke, and of a structure that has taken a team that was a perennial competitor under Jim Harbaugh to its current, bro-thetic state [makes reference to his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, who owned the team from 1977 through 2000]. I’m, like, not tweeting weird stuff on Twitter anymore. I’ve, like, BRO-wn up! I’m a BROxecutive now!
BRO! You have to BRO-MEMBER the glory days [makes reference to his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, who owned the team from 1977 through 2000]! BRO Montana! Terrell BRO-wens! Bill BRO-manowski! We can make the 49ers great again! And we’ll do it with a man who has a great history as a 49ers player and prominent executive! We ... my family ... [makes reference to his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, who owned the team from 1977 through 2000] ... we have this on lock!
//makes reference to his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, who owned the team from 1977 through 2000
///announces new football czar
////appears confused as everyone in the Bay Area faints at the same time
WhatEVS. Like, you bros forget that [makes reference to his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, who owned the team from 1977 through 2000] wanted to fire Bill Walsh, like, 27 different times! And I fired Jim Harbaugh right away [makes reference to his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, who owned the team from 1977 through 2000]! I'm ahead of the game, bros [makes reference to his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, who owned the team from 1977 through 2000]!