Players favor education over whistle-blower policy

Roger Goodell's whistle-blower policy regarding concussions doesn't appear to have much support among players, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: June 19, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- When commissioner Roger Goodell announced at the NFL spring meeting at Nashville in May that the league would enact a whistle-blower component to its new standards for concussion management, many players reacted with skepticism.

Nearly a month later, judging by the sentiments of the three players who attended the NFL "concussion summit" here Tuesday, a healthy dose of skepticism remains.

"I think, of all the things they're recommending [on dealing with concussions], that will be the toughest sell," said 11-year veteran tight end Ernie Conwell. "Players hate to be labeled, you know? And no one wants to be labeled a snitch or a rat -- that's for sure. So I feel like it's going to take a lot of education to make the players feel comfortable with it."

In addition to Conwell, an unrestricted free agent after having been released by the New Orleans Saints earlier this spring, the players who attended the NFL player health and safety conference Tuesday were Houston Texans tight end Mark Bruener and unrestricted free agent safety Troy Vincent, who is president of the NFL Players Association.

All three serve on the health and safety committee, and all agreed that the most critical work for the NFL, not only in terms of the whistle-blower system but in dealing with concussions in general, is in the education of the league's players. There is, they acknowledged, a kind of gladiator's mentality that pervades all professional sports, but especially football, an attitude that renders it difficult for athletes to concede injury.

Although Vincent characterized the daylong concussion summit as being about "keeping players on the field," the wide-ranging discussion by team doctors and trainers, league administrators, and participants on the NFL health and safety committee was just as much directed at keeping players who have suffered concussions off the field.

"Basically, when you ask a guy who you suspect of having a concussion if he wants to go back the game," Bruener said, "you're asking an irrational person to make a rational decision and to make it within a quick time frame. It just doesn't work."

There are some doubters who likewise question whether the whistle-blower system, despite its good intentions, will prove practical.

Under the system, which will begin in NFL training camps this summer, anyone may anonymously report to the league any incident in which a doctor is pressured to return a player suffering from a concussion to the field or any incident in which a player feels he is pressured to return to action. According to the policy: "The NFL will investigate any such reports and take whatever action is necessary."

But players pointed out, almost immediately after the announcement of the system, that the NFL has had problems in the past protecting the confidentiality of players who tested positive in the league's substance abuse program. So the league might have to work hard not just in the area of educating but also in nurturing the trust and confidence of players.

Goodell emphasized Tuesday that the whistle-blower system is "an important element of what we're trying to accomplish here." And he pointed out that the whistle-blower does not necessarily have to be a player but might be a doctor or a trainer. One positive for the NFL is the esteem with which players have quickly come to regard Goodell, who is viewed in his first year as an advocate for player concerns.

Still, as well as Goodell has been received, he might need some help convincing players that the whistle-blower system is a viable one.

"I do think we'll get to a point where guys won't be as reluctant," said Bruener, who has suffered four documented concussions in his 12-year career. "But like everything, it's going to take some time. The good thing is that guys are becoming more aware of issues like this. And I think there will be players who, if they see an incident where a guy is being forced to play or to practice, will say, 'Hold on, this isn't right,' and do something about it. But [the whistle-blower system] is something that kind of goes against the macho grain, you know?"

Conwell, who still hopes to sign with a team before camp, allowed that player health and safety has become a passion for him: "In theory, it's great, but we'll have to see how it works in application. But, hey, anything good starts with a theory. And this is a good move, even if it's one that will take some time to be accepted."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.

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