The NFL’s stunning admission of a link between concussions and CTE sparked varied responses from current and former players alike.
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Former Jacksonville and Baltimore guard Will Rackley retired in 2014 at the age of 24 after four seasons and a series of concussions. Now 26, his life is one of confusion, pain and an uncertain future. His disability claims were rejected by two NFL-approved doctors, and rejected on appeal by a higher, league-mandated medical authority. Rackley isn’t hurting financially—he played long enough to receive a league pension, but it’s on him to manage with his post-concussive symptoms. Currently, Rackley receives regular nerve block injections to try and deal with the constant headaches he’s suffered through over the last few years. His doctor sticks a needle into his eyelids, his temples, the back of his skull. After his most recent treatment, Rackley says his right eye wouldn’t open for five hours and he couldn’t see straight for a whole day.
Rackley suffered his final concussion during Ravens training camp in 2014 when he was trying to help a rookie tackle deal with a block. Rackley was on the receiving end of a helmet-to-helmet hit, and told me he knew it was time to retire because the concussion symptoms he suffered that day have never really gone away. He spends his time painting and developing apps, trying to wade through what his life has become. Rackley takes 12 pills a day to deal with the headaches and mood swings and depression and short-term memory loss and sensitivity to light and noise and on and on. He said he’s become a different person in some ways, experiencing moods that he’s never felt before, and the pills don’t help as much as he’d like. And he’s not sure how the concussion settlement helps him, or if it does at all.
Rackley is just one of the NFL players from the past and present who was unnerved by the league’s recent declaration that there was “certainly” a link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease that has plagued a disproportionate number of former professional football players. The comments were originally made by Jeff Miller, the NFL's Vice President for Health and Safety, on March 14, and an NFL spokesperson, as well as Giants CEO John Mara and Roger Goodell all confirmed that this position was nothing new. “There’s no secret that repeated concussions can have a very serious long term effect ... I don’t think we’re hiding from it...” Mara said.
Miller's comments invoked passionate reactions from players, even if they weren’t necessarily surprised by it.
“It’s very frustrating,” Rackley said of the league’s recent admissions. “It’s almost like ... I don’t want to say that they don’t really care, but I haven’t received any help. Not that I’m asking for help, but I haven’t received any checkups from the Ravens or anything. Throughout the  season I was on injured reserve, and once the official season started, I didn’t hear from the Ravens at all."
Rackley received a final exam after the 2014 season and wasn’t cleared through the protocol, which was the last time he’s heard from the organization or the league, outside of the disability claims. In response to SI.com’s request for comment on Rackley’s claims, the Baltimore Ravens issued the following statement: “Our medical history and relationship with Will is private, and we will not discuss publicly.”
Former safety Hamza Abdullah, brother of current Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah, played in the NFL from 2005 through ’11 and has thus far made it out of the league without serious repercussions. Unlike Rackley, Abdullah is relatively healthy now, though he had concussions during his career. The elder Abdullah knew what he was in for when he played, but that doesn’t dampen his cynicism regarding the NFL’s message on head trauma—now or then.
“My reaction was, it starts. The truth can only be held for so long,” said Abdullah, when asked how he felt about Miller’s admission. “First, you get a slip of the tongue, then you get someone trying to correct it, and then you get people saying, ‘Whoops—you need to go back and correct what you said.’ But under this pressure, and as players, we understand pressure. they’re under pressure from Congress and people who look to have the best interests of the public at heart. They’re going to ask those tough questions, and when that microphone is in your face, you have to tell the truth. It’s a lot different than being at a press conference where you can say what you want and avoid the questions.”
Abdullah was unsurprised by Miller’s admission.
“They probably don’t understand the magnitude of actually admitting it. I don't know if there’s an arrogance, but it seems that way. It’s like, ‘We’ve already settled with the players. We know we’re lying, but you guys can’t do anything, because there’s already a settlement.’ But that’s not the case."
Eugene Monroe, a left tackle with the Ravens, was the only currently employed player willing to go on the record for this piece. Monroe was recently affected by an SI.com article written by former college teammate and Jets left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson explaining how he felt betrayed after seeing the film, Concussion.
Wrote Ferguson in December:
“Perhaps I was a little naïve in my understanding of how the brain is affected by hits to the head. As I understood it, concussions dealt with big collisions, typically occurring at the skill positions, such as a wide receiver or defensive back trying to making a catch and receiving a hit in return from a player he didn’t account for, or a running back meeting a linebacker in the hole and colliding, sending both players to the ground dazed or frozen from the impact. Though I am familiar with examples of offensive lineman who have experienced concussions, it was still my contention that the offensive line was one of the safer positions when it came to being susceptible to head injuries. As I’ve come to find out, it isn’t just the large collisions that can be problematic, but rather the smaller collisions that don’t even amount to concussions but happen far more frequently, that are the real catalysts leading to CTE. Mike Webster was believed to have participated in about 25,000 violent collisions.”
“For either withholding the truth, or lying about a situation like this, I’d have to agree with [Ferguson],” Monroe said.
Monroe has a long history with the NFL’s varying stances on the subject of concussions, and though he felt that the league has not been forthcoming, he’d rather focus on what can be done.
“I took time out of my day the week leading up to the Super Bowl (Super Bowl XLVII, which the Ravens won in Feb., 2013) to listen to Goodell loosely speak about concussions—he didn’t say much about it, but it’s just hard to hear those things, and then for them to finally admit it ... where do we go from there, right? I mean, we can be sour about it, but if no action is being taken, we’re just wasting our time. So, what do we now do with this information? One thing we can do is more research, because there has been a lot of research already done.”
Geoff Schwartz, a 29-year old offensive guard who has played for the Panthers, Vikings, Chiefs and Giants, is looking for another team while he’s balancing the realities of risk with the desire to strap on the pads once again. Schwartz already knew the dangers of the game, so like a lot of players, he didn’t find the admission to be a big deal.
“I didn’t think that much about it, because I think we already know there’s a link,” he said. “So, them admitting it after the court case settled didn’t do much for me. I have my own opinions on things; I don’t need the opinions of others to validate what I think. If [current] players didn’t believe this was happening, it’s kind of on them. There’s a link, and them admitting it doesn’t change much. I don’t feel betrayed because these days, we know about it. If I played 30 years ago, and it wasn’t talked about, and I was one of those players, I would go that way.”
Regardless of varying reaction to the NFL’s admission last week or previous knowledge of the link between playing football and CTE, several players I contacted preferred not to be interviewed at all for this piece. There were two prevailing reasons—the fear of alienating potential employers, and the potential schism of being the guy in the locker room who was a bit too worried about concussions.
As one player told me, “It’s easy to comment on this when you have guaranteed money.”
Some things are certain: the NFL is a violent game and concussions will continue to happen. How the league responds with major action is perhaps its most prevailing question.