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Volume 20 No. 46
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Emphasizing safety, NFL looks at non-U.S. leagues, athletes as part of concussion study

Can the NFL solve its concussion crisis by looking overseas?

While it is not that simple, the league has begun learning from sports as disparate as Australian Rules Football and horse racing to glean ways to combat the crisis.

“Concussions are not a football issue,” said Richard Ellenbogen, chairman of the league’s head, neck and spine committee, to reporters last week. “This is an international problem. Not a national one.”

Ellenbogen and San Francisco 49ers owner John York, chairman of the player health and safety committee, attended FIFA’s concussion symposium in Zurich in October, calling the findings “eye opening” because they learned that many other sports are also trying to cope with the problem. For example, said Ellenbogen, nine out of 10 British jockeys suffer concussions. The symposium, held every three or four years, brings together leaders from sports whose players suffer concussions and experts in the field to share ideas and best practices.

Ellenbogen’s and York’s committees shared their findings last week with the competition committee in a first-time meeting of the three groups. Rich McKay, co-chairman of the competition committee, said it was helpful to have this kind of input in deciding new rules. The committee is considering everything from eliminating low blocks to eliminating kickoffs, though the latter was not discussed much last week.

Ellenbogen said that what he and York emphasized from what they learned in Zurich is the importance of rules designed to enhance safety. While technology can help — and the NFL spent millions of dollars just this year testing helmet sensors — rules that limit the hits that are most likely to cause concussions are extremely important, he said.

Indeed, McKay said game officials have been instructed to lean toward penalizing such hits, even if they are unsure whether a hit was clean or against the rules.

“We will err on the side of safety,” he said.

> BAFFLED OVER BOUNTIES: On the day after Paul Tagliabue’s decision to lift the suspensions of the bounty players while reinforcing the NFL’s findings that the program existed, owners interviewed here expressed everything from puzzlement to guarded anger over the decision. One key owner questioned how the former commissioner could find that the program existed, but then lift the discipline on the theory that it was management’s fault. This owner did not disagree with an analogy that it was akin to soldiers whose excuse for a massacre was that they just followed orders.

Art Rooney, the owner of the Steelers, said he was surprised at the decision, which for the reserved Rooney could count almost as a scream of protest.

The Colts’ Jim Irsay said Paul Tagliabue’s decision on the bounty case shows the difficulty of trying to protect players.
Jim Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts owner, said, “Sometimes you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. People say you have to protect the players, protect the players, and when you try you get the fight back … you can’t win.”
Goodell himself seemed puzzled, telling reporters, “[Tagliabue’s] report made it quite clear that he holds the management and the coaches responsible. My personal view is I hold everyone responsible. We have to have a personal responsibility here. Player health and safety is an important issue in this league.”

Perhaps Jacksonville’s Shahid Khan, one of the newest owners, said it best: “You accept it and move on.”

Khan said the team has sold several thousand tickets on its website to its first “home” game in London next season. The team will play one game annually in London during each of the next three seasons.

Riddell has been the official helmet sponsor of the NFL since 1989, but the company may not like what McKay has to say. “I don’t think any teams get caught up in the deal,” he said. “I don’t think anyone pays attention to it.” He was responding to a question about whether it was appropriate for the league to have an official helmet, which would seem to imply an endorsement of the safety features of Riddell products. Helmets are fine at preventing catastrophic injuries like skull fractures, but are hardly foolproof at preventing concussions. McKay called the Riddell contract a “sponsorship deal from way back when,” and said players choose their helmets often based on what they wore in college. If a player wears a non-Riddell helmet, the logo must be obscured. 2013 is the last year of the Riddell contract.

Owners got the forecast for the 2013 salary cap. A key NFL executive said it would be slightly more than this year’s $120.6 million, but certainly not as high as $122 million. Benefits usually come in between $20 million and $22 million, though their growth has accelerated in recent years and the figure could be higher. The NFLPA has promoted a different figure, total cash spend, which can vary widely year to year based on bonus spending and worker compensation payouts.
n Goodell said that the league is considering expanding the playoffs from 12 teams to 14, or even 16. Discussions have not yet begun with the league’s TV partners, though.

Joe Banner, the new Cleveland Browns president, is living in team housing near the club’s headquarters in Berea, Ohio. His family will join him next spring, by which time he should be living in a new home.

This week the Steelers will get an important addition — Dan Rooney. His son, Art, said the elder Rooney’s tenure as ambassador to Ireland had come to an end, and that he would be returning to Pittsburgh.