Pads or not, NFL most needs to change playing-hurt culture

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Before and after Troy Aikman's era, the thought often was to just put some ice on it. (Getty Images)  
Before and after Troy Aikman's era, the thought often was to just put some ice on it. (Getty Images)  

ATLANTA, Ga. -- So now the NFL will protect players by mandating thigh and knee pads for the 2013 season, and while that sounds good it doesn't mean much if the league can't go beyond protecting players' bodies.

I'm talking about protecting their heads, too, and let's not stop at concussions. I'm talking about players' attitudes towards injuries ... toward playing hurt ... toward life after football ... toward doing whatever they can to protect themselves from debilitating setbacks -- no matter if they're physical, mental or emotional.

In essence, I'm talking about a culture that says you gotta play hurt. Well, no, you don't, because the NFL says so.

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"The days of tough it out, suck it up ... those days are over," said former cornerback Troy Vincent, the NFL's vice president of player engagement. "There's a process now. The athlete must engage. He must be able to take ownership."

Vincent's comments come in the wake of the suicide of linebacker Junior Seau, a tragedy that provoked critics to wonder what the league is or should be doing to help players during and after their careers. Not enough, some critics believe, but Tuesday's vote to mandate pads is another step in a long process toward getting there.

Some players will oppose it. Some players may mock it. And the NFL Players Association reportedly is against it until gaining more information on the subject.

But the rule is not going away, people. As a matter of fact, the league said that while it welcomes the cooperation of the players' union -- which it will approach now -- it will implement mandated knee and thigh pads whether the NFLPA endorses them or not.

Look, pro football is a violent business, and we're just beginning to discover how violent. So steps must be taken to protect players, and those steps continued Tuesday with the NFL's action -- and while it's not a major change, it is one that could make a difference.

"Hopefully," said Atlanta general manager Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL's competition committee, "you're going to move the needle [in injury prevention]. And, if you're moving it 10 percent, you're still moving the needle."

Vincent said he played his entire NFL career without knee or thigh pads. He wore only a helmet and quarterback's shoulder pads for protection because, as he put it, he felt faster and "skinnier" and, frankly, better suited for the pro game. The benefits, he admitted, were psychological, with Vincent undergoing three knee surgeries during his career. But now that he's retired, he believes the benefits don't outweigh the risks.

"[Pads] is good," he said. "It's good for the game. I think we should be setting the example. It's the way it should be done." But it's more than players' bodies that need to be protected, and Seau's suicide at least has people talking about what could be next ... which is another part of this process. As Vincent pointed out, it's not so much players or former players who are interested in what can be done to help them; it's players' wives and family, with calls for grief counseling spiking after the Seau tragedy.

"His death," Vincent said, "allows us as a league to become a partner in a broader messaging in things that plague our society ... [and] the NFL player is not exempt from those things. ... With all we've seen in public and stories there is no single reason why one commits suicide, but there may be signs of depression where we see spouses actually reaching out.

"I always say want the truth about the player and what's going on his life? You have to go talk to his wife. Because she holds no punches. The guys? You don't do that because the six guys I'm talking to? I know there are only two starting cornerbacks, and if I say [I'm hurt] that's definitely a sign that something's going on. It's a sign of weakness, and that's got to change."

Good luck there. The NFL can't change overnight what players have been taught for decades, but it must change eventually. There are too many stories of players suffering from significant head injuries or suffering from depression or committing suicide to ignore ... and the NFL knows it.

Protecting a players' thigh or knee is the easy part. Changing his attitude about how to protect himself is the more significant hurdle, and don't look for that to happen anytime soon.

But look for it to happen ... because it must.

"It is our greatest challenge," said Vincent. "[You're taught that] you can never show a sign of weakness or tell anybody. So this is a culture shift. It's a social shift, which is why we have to do it at a younger age. It's an enormous task."

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