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If rookies aren't told the truth about brain risks, symposium loses relevancy

by | National NFL Insider
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Junior Seau's suicide should prompt the NFL to be honest with their incoming players. (Getty Images)  
Junior Seau's suicide should prompt the NFL to be honest with their incoming players. (Getty Images)  

NFL rookies this week were treated to a parade of former bad boys turned reformed men. Mike Vick spoke about dogs and prison and an altered life. Pacman Jones warned about becoming Pacman Jones, a name synonymous with the tawdry, the misdemeanor, the making of rain.

The rookies heard these stories and others at the NFL's rookie symposium. I've spoken at the symposium in the past. It is, without question, one of the great ideas. Or rather, it was. The symposium, unfortunately, has outlived its usefulness.

If you believe the symposium has an impact now, at this moment in time in the NFL, then you also believe the Detroit Lions drink non-alcoholic beer.

The problem is that none of the speakers at these symposiums says exactly what needs to be stated. They used to, because NFL life was simpler. Rookies were told to save their money, don't get arrested, and use condoms. Put a jimmy hat on and save your cash. Cool. There was a lot of truth telling then, more than now, because they aren't telling the full truth to these rookies now.

No one is saying: You are entering the NFL at a period when it's the most lucrative, but also, the most dangerous time for NFL players, on and off the field, in the history of the sport.

No one at the symposium is speaking this warning: There's a chance hits to the head could leave you brain-impaired in 20 years. The violence you're about to endure could make your mind lose much of its functionality even at a youngish age. You might even kill yourself, as too many others in your fraternity have done.

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Your union and ownership, for the next ten years over the length of the CBA, will brawl like MMA fighters. The commissioner who just hugged some of you on the Radio City Music Hall stage will issue harsh rulings if you make mistakes. See: the Saints, New Orleans.

But the symposium guests aren't speaking this sort of truth. No one can say the science increasingly shows that even common, non-violent hits might turn your brain into a turnip.

Unless there is one of these scientists who have examined the brains of dead players who have committed suicide, players like former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson and others, then the NFL might as well send these young men to Disneyworld to chill with Donald Duck. Everything else is just silliness.

There needs to be two brain surgeons on these symposium stages. One who can represent the NFL and say football poses no long-term danger to the brain, which is the NFL's position. But there needs to be another expert who says the NFL is wrong and speak specifically of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

No rookie, or player, should ever again say he wasn't warned about the dangers -- and the symposium is where it should start.

This would scare the hell out of rookies, but they would be informed. It's doubtful any of them would walk away, because young people don't think about 20 years down the line. But at least they would have the knowledge.

That's the core problem. The rookies have mostly heard about CTE in small sound bites through the media because no one inside the sport has a vested interest in them having all of the information about the potential mayhem in the brain that a series of small hits to the head -- not monster hits, but everyday practice hits -- could possibly cause.

The agents aren't going to warn them, because the agents have a vested interest in keeping them on the field. So does the union. So does the league. So the only people who tell the rookies about CTE are journalists and family members.

The big piece of medical advice presented to the rookies this week came from Dr. Mark Schickendantz, the Browns team physician. One of the things he discussed was that players shouldn't hide head injuries from team medical staff. From what I'm told, there was nothing discussed about CTE or how the culture of football causes players to hide injuries in the first place.

Again, the NFL is a smart league run by smart people, and the symposiums of the past were successes, but these symposiums can't be unless the rookies are told every ounce of truth, every sentence of knowledge, about what the sport might be doing to their brains.

This is also the union's responsibility to be certain, but it's the NFL that constantly publicizes the symposiums. It's good PR for them to do so.

So we're at this turning point. To make the symposiums wholly relevant again -- like they were before the possible ugly truth of CTE entered the picture like a monster out of the night -- tell the rookies everything. Don't leave anything out.

At that point, the symposium would matter once more.

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