Players better wise up about safety

If you want to see the disconnect between the world the NFL hopes to create and the one it currently is dealing with, please check the results of a recent ESPN.com survey given to selected players.

The questions were simple: We wanted to know 1) if players would ever compete in a Super Bowl with a concussion and 2) if the league really is committed to player safety. The answers, on the other hand, were startling. Even at a time when player safety is the hot-button issue of pro football, most players still would take extreme medical risks to reach their ultimate goals.

It's scary enough to think that 85 percent of the 320 players polled said they'd be willing to play in the Super Bowl with a concussion. It's equally baffling to hear that 60 percent of those same study subjects think the NFL really is serious about protecting their health. Those numbers prove that a good number of players believe the league is doing the right thing in regard to their future. The problem is that too many of them still aren't taking that same responsibility as seriously as they should be.

We live in an age when countless former NFL players have blamed the league for the frightening increase in cases of concussion-related ailments. Thousands of retirees were part of a class-action lawsuit that was settled with the league in August -- for a total of $765 million -- while others have begun individual litigation against specific teams. The argument is always the same in these cases: The NFL willfully hid the long-term consequences of concussions from players for decades. If those players had been aware of such brutal ramifications, they might have made different choices about how they protected their brains and bodies in their younger days.

The more complicated aspect of those accusations is one that this latest survey exposes -- that at some point the people most responsible for ensuring a player's safety are the players themselves. Even some men who played the game find fault with those who continually point their fingers at the league for their medical problems. When we hear that players are so willing to chase a Super Bowl while battling the pain of a concussion, it should only reinforce the need for peers to call out one another. The only way the NFL can change a culture deemed too dangerous is by everybody taking an active role in redefining that environment.

It's no secret that pro football players have a hard time acknowledging weakness. It's just as difficult to find those who are comfortable with discussing or accepting the potential severity of their injuries. They've all grown up with a mindset that it's always best to push through whatever ailments are plaguing them. It's a badge of honor to believe the body won't break if the mind is tough enough to endure.

That's an acceptable approach when you're talking about a sprained ankle or a tight hamstring. It's an entirely different matter when the subject is concussions. We can only guess how many players have hidden their symptoms after sustaining head injuries during the course of their careers. Since they're still so willing to take those chances -- especially in the face of all the mounting information about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) -- we should all be mindful of how far the league still has to go with this issue.

It's perfectly understandable that players would want to do everything possible to win a championship. What is harder to fathom is how such a study could still produce such a high number of affirmative responses to a question so loaded. It's almost as if all the recent evidence hasn't yet resonated with a group of players that has the best chance to start such a dramatic cultural change. When it comes to a topic like concussions, there really shouldn't be a caveat for when it's reasonable to put one's brain, and long-term health, in such a precarious position.

This is the major dilemma the NFL faces in its pursuit of improved player safety. The league has definitely been too heavy-handed in some respects -- there are still too many defenders who are being fined substantially for hits that are borderline at best -- but it is at least being consistent in its mandate. The league would rather err on the side of doing something that contributes to the protection of a player's long-term health. It has already faced enough lawsuits to know that it's far more sensible to take that approach.

The players, on the other hand, would be wise to note the shifting landscape of professional football. When those retired players settled their suit with the league last summer, they accepted an arrangement that will someday be about more than just a money grab. By cutting that deal -- and allowing the league to avoid any admission of culpability -- they basically made it harder for future players to come forward and make similar claims about the NFL's negligence. That $765 million will benefit ex-players currently suffering from concussion-related issues, but the next generation will have to be more proactive in fending for itself.

Sure, there will be funds for research and stiffer rules to protect the head going forward. There also will be more education at the high school and college levels, so players can be more aware of how to deal with concussions once they start earning paychecks in the league. However, those high school and college kids aren't competing in the league just yet, and the real fruit of future concussion studies likely will require years of intense investigation. In other words, the players who participated in that ESPN.com study will have to be smarter about how they handle their own safety.

The upside here is that the current players should have ample time to learn such valuable lessons. Realistically, most of them aren't likely to ever be in a situation where they'd have to decide on playing in a Super Bowl with a concussion. So that is one obvious reason to feel better about the current sentiment players have toward putting their brains in precarious positions. However, it will be more encouraging once we reach the point where there's never a compelling reason for players to take such risks with their health.