Balzer on NFL: Talking “Concussion”; Cam’s the Man

Howard Balzer

December 11, 2015 at 12:50 pm.

Dec 6, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) throws the ball in front of New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha (44) in the fourth quarter at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Panthers won 41-38. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 6, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) throws the ball in front of New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha (44) in the fourth quarter at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Panthers won 41-38. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

Christmas Day is memorable in many ways. But this year, perhaps more than ever, it will be memorable because it is the day the movie “Concussion” will premier in theatres.

Concussions are an issue that isn’t going away. But, it’s also obvious that as much as possible is being done to make what is at its base a potentially dangerous game as safe as possible.

Of course, one of the byproducts of the debate is whether young kids should play tackle football. What’s intriguing is that two of the doctors featured in the film have very different views on the subject.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith in the movie, had a piece published in the New York Times saying that kids of a young age shouldn’t play any contact sports. However, Dr. Julian Bailes, played by Alec Baldwin, disagrees.

In a conference call last week, Bailes, who is currently the medical director for Pop Warner Football, said, “I’m a big believer in the benefits of organized sports and the benefits of football. I have two children who play football and I believe football is safer than it’s ever been.”

Bailes and Omalu were at the forefront of research that discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy (CTE). Bailes is strong in his beliefs that CTE only develops in pro football players that hit each other thousands of times through the years, not from the contact that occurs in youth football. In addition, he decries the over-reaction to those that cite the limited number of players diagnosed.

While it’s true at this point that a brain can’t be completely studied until after someone’s death, Bailes noted that those that have been tested were done so because they had exhibited symptoms of brain damage.

Bailes’ most telling quote is this: “We don’t know the prevalence of CTE. I have said and I believe that CTE is a risk in a minority of NFL players and hopefully in a group of players who are in a now bygone era, meaning that the reforms in the NFL that began in 2009, as a result of our work and others’ work, has resulted in sweeping changes. Those that have been tested were those who the family brought forward after death thinking that they had CTE, thinking they were symptomatic, thinking they were showing signs and symptoms, so it’s a very skewed, very biased sample if you look at it scientifically or epistemologically. We don’t know the real prevalence.”

In an interview a month before his conference call, Bailes said of CTE exposure in players that didn’t play in the NFL, “This is like smoking so many packs of cigarettes. I think it is the exposure through the years and I think it’s primarily ones that have played many, many years. I think (CTE is) a very low risk (for college football players). I think there have only been a small handful reported, found at autopsy to have these changes and, I think, the real risk is not in high school or college or youth.”

Perhaps the most important by-product of the scrutiny is players making the difficult decision to self-report that they don’t feel right after suffering a jolt to the head. As Steelers quarterback Ben Roethoisberger said after being removed from a recent game, “We are blessed to be able to stand on a big platform and reach a lot of people. If you can reach one person you can feel like it’s a successful day. So many young kids, middle school, high school, college … it’s tough to fight through a concussion. It was tough when I first got in the league, and it probably still is. But it’s not smart. That’s the one part of your body you shouldn’t mess with.”

That’s one thing everyone can agree on.

Simply Noting

*After a difficult loss to Seattle on Dec. 6, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer worked until late in the night because the team had a quick turnaround, having to go on the road to play at Arizona four nights later. So it was that Zimmer decided to stop at McDonald’s on the way home and order two cheeseburgers. Unfortunately, he told the media with a laugh, he only got one. Said Zimmer, “That’s the kind of week it’s been.” He was then asked if he tried the “do you know who I am?” question after getting just one burger. Said Zimmer, “They probably did (know). That’s why I got one.”

*Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has done a lot of growing up in a short amount of time and is leading a team that could very well represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Last week was the one-year anniversary of his involvement in a traffic accident that could have been a lot more serious than it turned out to be. When asked about it and the affect it had him, the candid Newton said, “I’ve been through so much in my life to not just dwell on this one instant as a turning point in my life. But it’s a constant reminder. Just a simple I love you, just a simple appreciation to the next person. That goes a long way. We never know the day, we never know the hour, we never know the minute that’s going to be our last hurrah. So while you have the opportunity to do something, please do it.”

*Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t appear to have a problem with some of the antics wide receiver Antonio Brown comes up with after making big plays. His most recent was a misguided effort to mount the goalpost, only to bounce off and fall to the ground. There was 15-yard penalty and a fine, but no one seems to be making a big deal about it. Asked about the play, Tomlin said, “I didn’t see it, but I’m sure we’ll rehash it and rehash it 1,000 times in the next six days and suck all the life out of it.” In a game last season against Cincinnati, Brown somersaulted after scoring on a 71-yard punt return, prompting this comment from Tomlin: “It’s funny to me sometimes that people think I can stop a grown man from doing something like that. What do you want me to do? Not play him?” It was more of the same earlier this season when he front-flipped after a 56-yard touchdown and Tomlin said, “Awesome play. Sick celebration. Move on.”