Off the Grid: If the NFL really wants a clean slate when it comes to health and safety, they'd cease employment of the man best known for denying the effects of concussions.
Concussion opens Christmas Day, but the NFL doesn't need a major motion picture detailing its dark side to trip itself up from an awareness perspective. The movie, starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neurologist who made major strides in determining the link between head trauma in football and CTE, will be a horror flick to a lot of people whose familiarity with professional football pretty much stops after the games. It will show that the NFL did all it could to discredit Dr. Omalu and his findings, because the NFL knew the truth—its sport was damaging the brains of a disproportionate number of its participants. It will show that the league knowingly obfuscated data that could have made the game safer, or, at the very least, allowed its players to be more aware of the dangers involved. It will show a league that cared more about the survival of the game than the quality of life of the men who played it.
All of these facts are true, and horrifying. Time doesn't take them away.
The NFL of today will tell you that it's done a lot to improve the safety of football at all levels since Roger Goodell was basically forced to admit the link between concussions and long-term brain damage during a 2009 session of Congress, when he was raked over the coals. Some politicians wanted to revoke the NFL's antitrust exemption as a response to the league's denial of the clear problem, but Goodell—as is his wont—managed to keep the wolves at bay with vague promises that "We're doing everything we can for our players."
Since then, the league has changed tackling rules, increased penalties, pledged millions of dollars to concussion research, and vowed to clean up its own internal process when it comes to player safety. Goodell will point to nebulous acts, from concussion data that may or may not be accurate, to the $765 million settlement struck with former players to end a massive class-action lawsuit, to the "Heads Up" program for young players and their parents, and anything else in his view as proof that this is a different, more caring, more enlightened NFL.
But is it?
This week, the investigative team of Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada (the men who wrote "League of Denial," the book and documentary that did a lot to blow the doors off the ways in which the league once did all it could to hide what it knew) reported that the NFL had backed out of its financial support out of a major Boston University study on head trauma because it disagreed with the previous findings of Robert Stern, a BU professor of neurology and neurosurgery. Stern, the director of clinical research for Boston University's Alzheimer's Disease and CTE centers, once said that Goodell "inherited a cover-up" from Paul Tagliabue, his predecessor in the Commissioner's office. In 2014, Stern published a 61-page paper in which he strenuously objected to the parameters of the NFL's settlement with its former players, saying that many of the 76 deceased players who were named in the settlement would not have qualified for aid under its conditions.
The importance of the Boston University study can't be overstated, because the impetus is to finally be able to diagnose CTE in living brains, and to finally be able to determine how much a brain may be damaged soon after that damage occurs. But despite stringent and successful vetting of the study, the National Institutes of Heath, the organization given $30 million by the league in 2012, announced the seven-year, $16 million study this week with no mention of the NFL's financial participation.
Why is that relevant? Because according to sources who spoke to Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada, the NFL changed its tune on the "unrestricted" nature of its donation when it learned that Stern would be heading it up. When Stern and BU passed a high-level scientific review last year, it's reported, the NFL stepped in and exercised veto power. Dr. Walter Koroshetz, director of the NIH's National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, confirmed that to Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada in their report.
It's a bad look for the NFL, and the NFL tried to mitigate the damage. On Twitter.
ESPN story is not accurate. NFL did not pull any funding. NIH makes its own decisions.— Brian McCarthy (@NFLprguy) December 22, 2015
Whether that's the truth or not—and the NIH issued its own statement on the matter—it's a very bad look for the NFL. It's not McCarthy's role to be the target here; he's simply doing his job, juggling chainsaws for a league that keeps handing him more chainsaws. Goodell should address this matter personally and publicly.
One of those chainsaws, so to speak, is the continued involvement of Dr. Elliot Pellman with the NFL's medical staff. Pellman, who was educated in Guadalajara and has been caught red-handed exaggerating his credentials, was one of the two primary doctors (Ira Casson was the other) whose job it was to deny the effects of concussions in the league's less-aware era. Pellman once concluded in a research paper that "Players who are concussed and return to the same game have fewer initial signs and symptoms than those removed from play. Return to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season. The current decision-making of NFL team physicians seems appropriate for return to the game after a concussion, when the player has become asymptomatic and does not have memory or cognitive problems."
Pellman, as the Jets' team doctor, once told receiver Wayne Chrebet to re-enter a game after a concussion because "This is very important for your career." He's been attacked by actual neurosurgeons—Pellman is a rheumatologist—for years.
Tagliabue named Pellman the chairman of the newly-established Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee in 1994, and Pellman did everything he could to repay that and other favors by minimizing the known effects of head injuries and publishing questionable research on concussions that went against most conventional wisdom. It would seem that the new NFL would want to sweep its involvement with Pellman under the rug.
spotters—the medical trainers who are supposed to help determine when players are concussed during games.
This is where we are. A guy who did everything possible for years to support the league's allegedly former views on concussions is basically in charge of a group of spotters whose work has been called into question on multiple occasions over the last few years. One may wonder if Pellman's continued involvement with the league is a protective measure, since Pellman has been around long enough to know just how the NFL has handled player safety issues for decades. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, as they say.
The Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada report, and Pellman's continued high-level involvement with the league's medical protocols, are but two reasons the NFL doesn't need a major film to outline its hypocrisies and disconnects. When Will Smith steps into the screen, that's just a manifestation of a league that has no interest in getting out of its own way, and marginal interest in "doing better."
No matter what it claims.
Q&A: Giants OG Geoff Schwartz
A seventh-round pick of the Panthers in 2008, Geoff Schwartz has used his intelligence, power and athleticism to become one of the NFL's best guards. He signed a four-year, $16.8 million contract with the Giants before the 2014 season. Sadly, he missed all but two games in 2014 due to injuries, and was coming back strong in 2015 before a broken leg ended his season in late November. I spoke with Geoff recently about his experience on injured reserve, and several other things. A self-described "Fat Kid Living a Dream" on Twitter, he's always got a lot of interesting things to say.
Doug Farrar: I've had players tell me that when they are in injured reserve, they sort of disappear from the team. Has that been your experience? Do you feel that you're a part of the team now?
Geoff Schwartz: Not really, no. I go in for 30 minutes a day right now, and as my rehab gets more extensive, you'll do more, but you're not in the meetings. And when you go into the facility, you don't go in when the guys are around. You go in when the trainers are there, but the trainers' first job is to get the guys ready who are playing that week. Which makes total sense. The times you're in rehab are when they're [his teammates] in meetings. So, you go in, you get your rehab, you get out. I mainly see everyone on game day, when I'm in the locker room before games. That's pretty much the only time I see them. That's the worst part, you know —not being around your buddies, who you've gone through training camp and a lot of battles with through the season.
DF: You have a lot of young players on that offensive line—Ereck Flowers, Weston Richburg, Justin Pugh. A lot of high picks who are looking to make their own mark. How much have you been the mentor—the elder statesman? What does that mean to you?
GS: The mentoring thing—and a sidebar here about the guy who mentored me, who was Jordan Gross in Carolina. But the mentoring thing is not so much about saying, "Hey—do what I do. This works for me." I mean, I'm different than Weston and Justin and Ereck. We're all different players with different bodies, and we do different things. I think it's about acting like a professional, preparing the way you're supposed to prepare, and doing the right thing. Then, the young guys who see me do it... I think Weston and Justin don't need that from me. They're great pros already. They're great players. It's fun to be around young guys who share the same attitude and mindset as me. Ereck Flowers, too—he's very young, and as a rookie, it's tough. I'll never know what being a ninth pick overall is [laughs]. But he's tough, man. He's strong, and he's going to be a great player. So, it's been fun to see those guys grow a little bit, and to be a part of that offensive line.
DF: We on the outside talk about line communication—line calls, protections calls, continuity, all that stuff. We think we know what it means, but what does it really mean to be at the head of an NFL offensive line and make those calls and keep everything together?
GS: A lot of the communication process happens not on the field—you have to kind of learn and develop chemistry off the field with the guys. And then you learn the scheme together. A lot of it is just... it's not like the movies, where it's very obvious and it's a one-word call, or you just point at the guy you're working to. I played with Marshall Newhouse all season long, and we don't really make calls. We knew what we were doing, and we'd say, 'Hey—we good here?' and he'd say, 'Yeah." We knew what that meant. And that just happens by playing next to a guy. Protection calls? Some teams rely on the center to do a lot of them, and some teams rely on the quarterback. We're very quarterback-centric, so Eli will help us with that, and he will take us to who he wants us to go to. It's not as hard for the center, having to decide who to go to. The center will set the protection, and Eli can do what he wants. But the communication thing is typically just—it happens just with playing next to the person for a while.
DF: I was watching your tape this morning, and I would see you tap your right leg and things like that....
GS: Oh, you noticed that, huh?
DF: It seems like there's a lot of that—there's the call, and there seems to be, from my observation, some sort of subterranean communication going on between a tackle and a guard, or a guard and a center.
GS: So, you can see the taps on the leg in our away games?
GS: Huh. That's impressive.
DF: All-22. It's easy.
GS: Ha! Well, I only did that in away games. Marshall and I had a little system where it was loud in the stadium and we'd change the snap count. It's a way for us to make a call without us saying anything.
GS: He's playing very well. He's played some very good defensive ends this year—Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller, Khalil Mack. He just played Seattle this last weekend, and he's playing really, really well. I'm very proud of him. He's really come into his own—this is his fourth year, and he's played every snap in his career. That's impressive, but he just looks very comfortable this season—his sets are good, and he's playing confidently. He's going to get a big contract, and he'll deserve it. I'm looking forward to watching him go through the free agency process and get a lot of love, and get what he deserves. Because it's been rough in Cleveland.
DF: You're of the few Jewish players in the league, and you've talked about it before as a source of pride. What does that mean to you?
GS: It's very important. When I first came into the NFL, I don't think I realized how big of a role model I was, and my brother is, or we both are. But we get requests a lot to do things in the Jewish community. We do them, and we see how much it means to people. We talk to other Jews who know who we are because we play football, and became football fans because of us, and it's important to be that role model. I like doing it, and interacting with other Jews—being a role model for kids. There's not many of us in the NFL—I don't know the count anymore. Gabe Carimi worked out with the Giants, so there was the joke that we were cornering the market for Jewish offensive linemen. That was three years ago, so I don't even know who's Jewish in the NFL anymore. Ali Marpet of the Buccaneers is Jewish, I know that.
History Lesson: Hardy Brown, the NFL's most prominent hatchetman
Given the NFL's current focus on penalties for on-field violence, it's tough to say how Hardy Brown could have made his way in the current league—certainly, he would be fined as much as he made. Brown grew up rough in Texas before attending SMU and Tulsa, and breaking into pro football with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the old All-America Football Conference in 1948. He played with the Chicago Hornets of the AAFC in 1949 before moving to the NFL in 1950, playing with the Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins. But it was with the San Francisco 49ers from 1951 through 1955 where Brown made his name as one of the most intimidating tacklers in football history.
Brown didn't wrap up a lot—his technique isn't found on any instructional videos. Instead, he was the foremost purveyor of the shoulder-shiver, back in the day when one could get away with such things. Brown discovered that with a perfectly placed shoulder hit to the head area, he could knock an opponent right out—and he was very good at it.
New York Giants lineman Tex Coulter grew up with Brown in a Fort Worth orphanage, and figured his old friend would take it easy on him when the two faced off.
"I came out of the huddle at the beginning of the game and figured I'd say hello," Coulter said in The Pro Football Chronicle, by Dan Daly and Bob O'Connell. "I came to the line and looked across at his linebacker spot and his eyes looked like they belonged to some cave animal. They were fiery, unfocused. You didn't know if he could see anything or everything. I kept my mouth shut."
Brown knocked so many guys out with that perfectly-placed shoulder, George Halas demanded that league officials check his shoulder pads in 1951. They found nothing exceptional. Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle claimed that Brown knocked out 12 players in 1951 alone, and while that may be a bit of an exaggeration, it was true that he was the league's foremost purveyor of knockouts—and it was also true that opposing teams did whatever they could to exact revenge.
Pat Summerall was a teammate of Brown's in 1956. He recalled that Brown suggested an onside kick against the GIants, and when Summerall kicked off, the Giants players were more interested in using the play as an opportunity to pile on Brown than to go after the ball.
"I don't think he ever went out to hurt anyone," Coulter said years later, in a claim Brown's opponents must have found hilarious. "I think Hardy was shaped a certain way... when you're doing the hitting, when you stick someone with that shoulder, it's a beautiful feeling. By God, it gives you a sense of power that reaches right to the back of your head. I think Hardy enjoyed that feeling."
The modern NFL would prefer to avoid re-telling the legends of players like Hardy Brown, and it's not practical to play the way he did. But he was a hard man who grew up in a hard time, never had an easy life, and found a version of fame for a time in the pro game when it was more like the Wild West than its current domesticated iteration.
Bro-fficial Review: Dean Blandino explains the Melee at the Meadowlands
Dean Blandino, the league’s V.P. of Officiating, has a tough job. Not only are his referees blowing calls at an all-time rate, he can’t even spend time on Jerry Jones’s party bus without people freaking out. Here, we give Blandino, the most bro-like NFL executive, equal time to counter the slings and arrows headed his way.
"Bros and Bro-ettes! There was, like, NO CHILL at MetLife Stadium last Sunday when my man Bro-dell Beckham, Jr. took on Josh Norman last Sunday! Bros are supposed to hang, not fight! Unless there's a club! And you never talk about the club! But here, these two Bro Bowlers were attacking each other all through the game! And now, my bro Terry McAulay is facing all this, like, brostility over the fact that he didn't give Beckham the boot.
"I know, bro. Brah. DUDE. Brodell Beckham totally launched himself at Norman's helmet like a missile, or, like a BROPEDO! GIMME SOME! And there was no quid pro bro! Weak! There should have been a brohibition!
//drinks Bud Light
///watches "Fight Club" for the 8,374th time
"So, bros wanna know why I didn't slam McAaulay down for his unbrofessional response to all this stuff. Like, have you SEEN McAulay, Bro? He's, like, old enough to be my dad or something! If he was a bro, y'know, it'd be different, but I couldn't tell him to pull stars out of the game from our Brommand Center in NYC. We were brotally screening "Rounders" on the TVs during that game anyway! I wish we could broverturn that moment, but chill, brrrah. McAulay will be, like, downgraded. He's working the Packers-Cardinals game this Sunday! Not a marquee matchup at all!
"Until next week, BROCEPHUS!"
Turkey(s) of the Week: Pete Morelli and his officiating crew
Speaking of officials and their follies, we present Pete Morelli, the reigning Art McNally Award winner for officiating excellence. On the last play of the first half in Detroit's 35-27 win over the Saints last Monday, Lions safety James Ihedigbo called timeout, and Morelli's crew stopped play. Which is all well and good, except for one small thing: Detroit was out of timeouts at the time. After the timeout was called and officials took one of their seemingly infinite long conferences to discuss the matter, Morelli announced that the down would be replayed.
After the game, Morelli spoke with a pool reporter about the blunder:
“A timeout was granted inadvertently on that play. We stopped the clock, the whistle was blown. There is no penalty on that type of play. The only penalty on timeouts is when they freeze a kicker. By rule, there’s no foul, no penalty by rule (for) granting an extra timeout.”
Morelli concluded the interview by saying that play should have just kept going. Not a big deal, except for the fact that Morelli and his crew have been blowing calls at a fairly epic rate all season.
In the Steelers' Week 5 win over the Chargers, Morelli's crew let the game clock run an extra 18 seconds when they should not have. Side judge Rob Vernatchi was suspended one game for that mistake.
In Baltimore's Week 10 loss to the Jaguars, a false start by Jacksonville should have caused a 10-second runoff of the clock and the end of the game. But the false start was not called, and the Jaguars kicked a game-winning field goal instead. The NFL admitted the error but issued no punishment.
In the Week 12 game between the Cardinals and 49ers, Morelli's crew was especially horrid—Arizona lost a down on an officiating mistake in the first quarter, and the 49ers were very unhappy about a series of penalties that were called on them later in the contest. Reviews from both sides seemed to intimate that the refs had lost control of their surroundings.
“The officials were struggling. Mightily,” Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said after the game, in which a penalty his team hadn't accepted was called anyway, and a first down for the Cards became a second-and-three. “I mean, they can’t count to three... It was a FUBAR on their part. They can try to explain it; they’re wrong.”
For those issues, Morelli's crew was "downgraded" from the following Sunday night game between the Steelers and Colts, which turned out to be a blowout snooze-fest in Pittsburgh's favor. Instead, Morelli's crew was assigned to the Eagles' upset of the Patriots, which was probably the most exciting game of the day.
No indication as to any punishment for the latest error in the Lions-Saints game, but when Terry McAulay gets a prime assignment one week after completely losing control of the Giants-Panthers game, you have to ask yourself—does downgrading really mean anything?
On a final note: One thing that does mean a lot is your readership. To all who peruse and enjoy Off the Grid and everything else we do here at SI.com, a very happy holiday.