Stop Talking and Use Your Head

Wrong spokesman, wrong tone, wrong topic—Mike Brown's concussion comments did nothing to help a touchy issue
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When I think about the growing intersection between science and the culture change the NFL is trying to bring about regarding concussions and related brain injuries, I immediately wonder what Mike Brown has to say about the topic.

So when the Bengals’ 77-year-old owner decides to open up and shed some light on the issue, as he did last week in interviews with Cincinnati-area media, I pay attention. Especially when Brown sums up any potential link between football-produced head injuries and later-in-life brain damage as nothing more than "merely speculation," citing "our statistics"’ as substantiation of his claim.

That pretty much settles it for me, but I’m not sure it will completely sway the debate in the eyes of the 4,000-plus former NFL players who are suing the league, claiming the NFL withheld information about the long-term consequences that football contact can have on the brain. They might need a tad more convincing, and for Brown to save them all some time and court costs by fleshing out the topic.

Which, in fairness, he attempted to do at the Bengals’ kickoff luncheon at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, adding to the public record that he himself suffered his share of concussions as a high school and college athlete, and "I can still count to 10." He went on the further clarify his views on the concussion matter, saying "Those sorts of things were part of sports in my era, and it still is.’"

Exactly, Mike, but I’m not sure that’s the strongest thrust of your argument to accentuate.

The NFL has endured more than its share of cringe-worthy headlines in recent weeks, but Brown taking center stage to play science skeptic and quasi-concussion expert had to give the league office a headache of the non-contact variety. At a time when the NFL is leaning so far forward on the matter of brain injuries and player safety that it seems it could tip over, along comes Brown to frame the issue in the hazy light of the past, with a shrug and a ham-handed attempt to dismiss the whole concussion issue as guesswork that hasn’t led to any meaningful conclusions.

Simply put, it’s the wrong tone, at the wrong time, by the wrong guy. Brown earned himself a Triple Crown of sorts by meandering down this particular conversational path.

The out-of-step, much-ado-about-nothing message delivered by Brown certainly did the NFL no favors, putting the league on the side (at least partially) of an owner who sounded as if he was trying to marginalize the concussion issue. There are obviously questions left unanswered by science when it comes to the brain and football, because it remains an evolving area of study, but how could Brown talk about the "uncertainty and contention" of current research when its trending in the opposite direction? Different conclusions have been reached about the strength of the link between repetitive concussions and the risk of cognitive impairment later in life. But the issue isn’t just speculative, and it isn’t going away. Instead, it’s likely going to court, unless the league settles with the former players who are suing it.

With that as the backdrop, does the NFL really want Brown of all people to be messenger when it comes to handling the question of whether repeated concussions increase the risk of dementia? He’s one of the league’s few remaining old-school owners, with his family name steeped in the history of the game. But when it comes to concussions, the history of the game isn’t all that glowing. Not so long ago, concussions were thought of as nothing more than players getting "dinged." If you got your "bell rung," you were expected to show toughness, fight through it, and get back on the field.

Brown represents the NFL’s old guard, but that naturally can be interpreted as representing the past and the way things used to be done. And that’s not really the direction the league wants to head on this defining and litigious issue.

The flippant and simplistic illustration Mike Brown offered doesn’t further the debate any in terms of this crucial issue.

After all, the past is very much the problem when it comes to concussions in football. The game either overlooked, disregarded or didn’t know enough about brain injuries for far too long. Brown, the son of the legendary and innovative Hall of Fame coach, Paul Brown, might point out that those "sorts of things were part of sports in my era," but once upon a time, so too was the habit of withholding of water during practices and making full-contact drills a daily staple. But we know better now.

I’m glad Brown can still count to 10—tell me, exactly how many double-digit loss seasons have the Bengals had under his stewardship?—but the flippant and simplistic illustration he offered doesn’t help resolve this crucial issue any more than climate-change deniers asking how global warming could possibly exist if it still snows every winter.

Brown has a dog in this fight, of course. He’s one of 32 owners, and the NFL is facing a potentially costly lawsuit over the issue of football-related brain injuries. One of Brown’s more recent players, receiver Chris Henry, died in a 2010 domestic dispute accident and was later found to have a form of brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, making him the league’s first known active player to have that progressive and trauma-induced disease. (Until recently, CTE could only be discovered in an autopsy.)

In Henry’s case, there was proof of football-related brain damage. But he didn’t live long enough to experience any complications from it in old age. I’m not sure if that’s relevant to the "statistics" Brown cites to back up his "speculation" contention or or not.