On the same day that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke at the Harvard School of Public Health about his continuing crusade "to change the culture of football to better protect players," one of the faces of the game was — deliberately or not — minimizing the importance of head trauma prevention by again insisting that he'd try to conceal the effects of a possible concussion.
Brian Urlacher told the media Thursday that he'd cover up a concussion if need be, despite the fact that's the exact opposite message Goodell is trying to relay to the future stars of the game who look up to guys like Urlacher.
But here's what I find interesting about Urlacher's comments: He's aware of the long-term effects of head injuries. He isn't ignoring them. Instead, he's willing to accept that possible future and is instead suggesting that the onus is on the players themselves.
"If you get concussed, then don’t play. It’s your career, it’s your life," Urlacher said. "You have to make a decision on your own. Some guys have sat it down because of that. If I got concussed a lot, I probably wouldn’t keep playing. But I don’t. So I’m good."
Urlacher and Goodell have different motives, and that's why the two don't really see eye-to-eye on the importance of head injuries in the NFL. Urlacher said Thursday that he believes the NFL doesn't put enough stress on knee injuries, "because a knee injury puts you out for a season" while "a concussion, you may miss a game or two; huge difference."
Urlacher may be an idiot. He may be short-sighted and ignorant and just flat-out crazy. But there's something at least a little admirable about his willingness to risk his future and his long-term health in order to commit his body and mind to the game he loves. I think that has to do with the fact that the game you and I love won't continue to dominate the sports spectrum if more guys don't come along with Urlacher's mentality.
He's most concerned with the types of injuries that will cost him right now, not the ones that could cost him in a decade or two. And yes, that is his choice.
So should the grown men who play this game get to decide whether they want to keep playing in spite of concussions? I mean when you think about it, few other lines of work would force employees to miss days on the job due to injury if said employees were willing to "play through the pain," so to speak. The problem, Goodell knows, is the message it sends to those kids, and maybe more importantly, to their parents. If parents shy away from signing their kids up for football in greater percentages, then the talent pool will become shallower and the game will take a hit. Plus, Goodell and his cohorts know damn well that those who invest in the National Football League will eventually be less willing to cut checks to them if viewers begin to turn away from the it.
As long as there are boxers prepared to jump into the ring and football players willing to take the field, inherently violent sports like those will continue to survive. But it's not about survival; it's about dominance. And Goodell knows that if his league's going to keep dominating the North American professional sports landscape, it'll have to continue to evolve.
"Football has always evolved, and it always will," he told the crowd Thursday at Harvard. "Make no mistake: change does not inhibit the game, it improves it."
So Goodell's thinking macro, which is his job, and Urlacher's thinking micro, which is his choice. But while injury prevention from the head to the toes is important for the long-term future of the game, Urlacher and his peers must understand that nothing endangers their long-term health and the long-term health of the NFL as much as concussions.