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Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013

GREEN BAY PACKERS: OF WOUNDS AND WARRIORS

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It's only natural that a rugged, “feel no pain” culture surrounds a sport as brutal and territorial as football. With money to be made at the major-college and pro levels, the leagues and sponsors and media have teamed up for decades to glorify “the 100-yard war” and the fearsome, fearless soldiers who play wounded and “leave everything they have on the field.”

But the warrior mentality has taken football into a new zone—a terrifying one. We always knew that taking and delivering countless “hits” could mean lots of pain in later life. Now, however, many former players are learning that football has damaged their brains—a huge new factor in deciding whether football's rewards outweigh the risks.

Last week one current NFL player, a former Badger, made his decision and left the game. Another player, feeling bullied by a teammate, decided the mental anguish was too much.

Meanwhile in Wisconsin there was a particular football wound that plunged Packer fans into a different kind of fear...

 

Frank: Two straight losses after Aaron Rodgers' broken collarbone. Were you surprised they couldn't handle the Eagles at home?

Artie: No, it was pretty much what I expected. And I probably should have expected that they'd lose another quarterback on the first possession. It's like they're playing in the Twilight Zone!

F: Seneca Wallace's groin problem rushed ex-Badger Scott Tolzien into the game with virtually no preparation.

A: And his play was the bright spot of the day. He needs to work on a higher arm release to avoid the batted balls, but he can put some zip on the ball and he seems well-composed.

F: So he's your starter this weekend against the Giants even if Wallace can play?

A: Absolutely! Coach and I are in agreement on this. He has a better arm, so a defense can't pack it in as much at the line of scrimmage as they can against Wallace.

F: Plus Tolzien will get plenty of reps this week with the No. 1 offense.

A: But what kind of O-line will he have? Against Philly the injury jinx hit center Evan Dietrich-Smith and tackle Don Barclay—after he'd switched to guard because T.J. Lang replaced Dietrich-Smith. Who knows who'll be trying to protect Tolzien and get Eddie Lacy some holes?

F: Making things worse, the Packers also lost defensive back Casey Hayward and linebacker Nick Perry...

A: Apparently to new versions of their earlier injuries. And Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett got banged up on the D-line.

F: To say nothing of Clay Matthews having to play one-handed because of that huge club protecting his broken right thumb.

A: It was inspiring to see him on the field, but was it really of any benefit?

F: Now they play a Giants team that started horribly but has won three straight. Then it's Minnesota at home and a quick trip to Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. Let's say they go 1-2 in those games; that would make them 6-6, and no one really knows how soon Rodgers can return.

A: There's no rehab program for this. It's a matter of letting the bone heal completely.

F: This could still work out well for the Packers if Rodgers can return with a couple of weeks left in the season and the team stays in the playoff picture. A well-rested Rodgers with a couple of games to recharge could be perfect for a post-season run.

A: And Randall Cobb is supposed to return in a few weeks too. But they've got to get some wins in the meantime, and with all the injuries... Well, if Tolzien goes down next week, maybe they'll want to keep up the UW connection. What's Ron Vander Kelen doing these days?

 

THE NFL'S BIG ISSUES

F: The league has plenty to worry about these days. The news last week that Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett has brain damage put a fresh spotlight on the issue of concussions. And the crazy situation in Miami, with offensive lineman Jonathan Martin leaving the Dolphins amid allegations of bullying by fellow lineman Rich Incognito, raised other questions about the super-macho atmosphere of NFL locker rooms.

A: Plus there was a former Badger, offensive lineman John Moffitt, quitting football because, as he put it, he didn't want to risk his long-term health even for a shot at playing in a Super Bowl with Denver.

F: At the heart of all this is the so-called “warrior mentality” of the NFL. Not that it doesn't exist in every sport; the ideals of determination and perseverance aren't restricted to football, or even to males. Look at any TV promo for women's basketball or soccer or volleyball and what do you see? The same bad-ass, “I'll stomp you” glares that the NFL or NBA guys display.

A: But in football the tough stuff is carried to the nth degree, and the potential liabilities are there to the nth degree.

F: We'll have a lot more to say on the website...

 

MORE CONCUSSION EVIDENCE

F: Now we've seen another all-time great, Tony Dorsett, talk about how his brain has been impaired from all the hits he took. A couple of weeks ago it was Brett Favre saying he has memory problems. And it wasn't just Dorsett who turned out to have signs of CTE—chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The Hall of Fame offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure and former all-pro D-lineman Leonard Marshall were also diagnosed that way after having brain scans and other tests at UCLA.

A: Those are some big names.

F: Dorsett told ESPN's “Outside the Lines” that during his flight to L.A. He struggled to remember why he was on the plane. He also said he gets lost when driving his daughters to their soccer and volleyball games. And he said he has trouble controlling his emotions. DeLamielleure told ESPN that he suffers from anxiety and chronic insomnia, mood swings and suicidal thoughts.

A: For those guys and Favre, staying on the field was just part of the culture—”Man up! Shake it off! Only the strong survive!”

F: I don't see how anyone could play football for any length of time at any level and not have some level of brain trauma. In the modern game they're stretching, if not breaking, the laws of physics in terms of mass and momentum and impact.

A: Stretching the laws of biology too. It’s not like the '50s, when a guy could play offensive line at 215 pounds. Now it's 300-pounders who are as fast as the old-time linebackers used to be. Those hits have got to carry more force than the human body should absorb.

F: Nobody, including Favre, would ever be allowed to play 200-plus consecutive games these days now that they have these concussion “protocols” to follow after someone takes a shot to the head. But for Favre it was part of his legend and part of his pride. Now we're seeing the first signs that he's paying for all that toughness.

A: That's one reason Favre is sure to come back to Green Bay sometime for his number retirement, even if his enemy Ted Thompson is still the GM. Brett won't remember that he can't stand Thompson!

 

ONE PLAYER'S CHOICE

F: John Moffitt, a third-year offensive lineman out of UW, simply left the Broncos because, in his words, “I just really thought about it and decided I'm not happy. And I think it's really madness to risk your body, risk your well-being and risk your happiness for money.”

A: He's living proof that UW is the Harvard of the Midwest.

F: I don't know about that, but Moffitt certainly gave some thoughtful quotes to the Associated Press. He gave up about $300,000 in remaining salary for this season but said, “I decided that I don't really need to be a millionaire. I just want to be happy.”

A: I wouldn't mind trying to combine both of those things, but I know what he means. But he is giving up a chance to go to the Super Bowl with Denver.

F: He addressed that too, saying, “I don’t need the Super Bowl experience. I played in great stadiums and I played against great players. And I had that experience and it’s enough.”

A: Well then, good for him.

F: I certainly don't think Moffitt is going to set off a wave of NFL departures, but he might make more players consider the issues he raises. I do think there’ll be more guys quitting a year or two before they might have done it otherwise, or maybe once they get a Super Bowl ring.

A: Junior Seau was celebrated for staying in the NFL for two decades, and look what happened.

F: Last year, three years after retiring, he killed himself with a gunshot to the chest. His family allowed his brain to be medically examined and it showed he had the signs of CTE.

 

THE BULLYING CONTROVERSY

F: Jonathan Martin, a big strong offensive lineman, left the Dolphins because of what he called bullying by linemate Richie Incognito. It's a good reminder that physical pain is one thing, but there's also such a thing as emotional pain.

A: There's always been some of that in football, the mucho-macho way it's been coached. Look at Bear Bryant tortured the so-called “Junction Boys” in his first training camp at Texas A&M in the '50s.

F: Or look at the way Vince Lombardi is remembered. Sure, he's a demigod because he won all those championships, but Henry Jordan probably wasn't lying when he said, “He treats us all the same—like dogs.” And when the abusive treatment—messages including racial slurs and threats of violence to Martin and his sister—comes from a teammate, and apparently is tolerated by the rest of the team and the coaching staff...

A: But that's just it. There are all sorts of views and statements about whether teammates really knew what Incognito was doing, and even whether he and Martin actually seemed like friends.

F: There's been stuff about how teammates sides with Incognito and criticized Martin for not being able to take a little “hazing.”

A: And even some stuff about the GM telling Martin he should just punch Incognito out.

F: And now the latest from Incognito, as told the Fox Sports, is that threats and racial slurs were common in the Dolphins' locker-room banter, and that even Martin sent him messages like that.

A: This whole thing makes my head ache. Now I have no idea what the NFL's investigation might dig up.

F: Of course you can't play football well without determination and courage, but that doesn't mean there are no limits on those demands.

A: I saw a good column on grantland.com by Brian Phillips, and here's part of what he wrote:

 

“The brain is a part of the body. It's an organ. It's a physical thing. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it breaks because you beat it against the inside of your skull playing football, and sometimes... it breaks for reasons that are harder to see. Your ability to chortle, 'Boys will be boys' doesn't mean that psychological abuse of the sort that Martin apparently endured can't widen that kind of fracture...

“Sometimes the brain goes sideways, and when that happens, 'brave' or 'cowardly' shouldn't even come into it. Seeking help is just the practical thing to do.”

 

F: Elliott Almond of the San Jose Mercury News pointed out that Martin is a pretty unique guy for an NFL player—under any circumstances, really. Almond wrote, “Martin earned a degree in ancient Greek and Roman classics at Stanford...”

A: The UW of the West...

F: “...and if not for football would have become the first fourth-generation African-American to attend Harvard.” He chose Stanford so he could play top-level football, which doesn't indicate a guy who hates the game or can't handle its demands. But it may indicate that he was more intellectual than the average NFL player, and another former Stanford and NFL player, Coy Wire, wrote this in a column for ESPN.com:

 

“If you don't fit into the mold, and the culture of the locker room, you won't last. Sometimes, in a gladiator sport like football, intelligence can be perceived as being soft.”

 

A: Like Moffitt, Martin is obviously a bright guy and can do other things with his life. So who needs a thug like Incognito as a teammate, or even an acquaintance?

F: Any relationship between two people—co-workers, spouses, siblings, anyone—is by definition unique. Lots of those relationships include love, but they also can include rivalry and criticism and even moments of hate. I suppose it's possible that Martin and Incognito had a long spell of friendly bantering that then turned nasty.

A: Incognito apparently has a history of boorish behavior, which doesn't mean he's just a Neanderthal. But it also doesn't mean he didn't cross the line into outright abusiveness.

F: As for Martin, there obviously was a sensitivity there that Incognito didn't recognize, or just didn't care about. That sensitivity didn't mean Martin couldn't play football, but obviously he reached a point where it wasn't worth it to him.

 

A LONG LIST OF PROBLEMS

A: How'd you like the column I sent you by Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post about the NFL's many problems?

F: As usual, Boswell was very insightful. He cited the Incognito issue as well as the increasing brain-injury revelations and the NFL's slowness in recognizing that problem. And he cited the murder charges against New England's Aaron Hernandez; the New Orleans Saints' system of bounties for injuring opponents a few years back; and the workaholic atmosphere of NFL coaching that helped cause life-threatening crises for Denver's John Fox and Houston's Gary Kubiak. And Boswell summarized:

 

“Where are we? Where is pro football? The NFL doesn’t have a PR problem. It has a reality problem. And it may be a grave one. Every month —and it seems every few days—the NFL is inundated by new, barely suspected revelations. What has the NFL become? Or is this what it has been for some time? Is the truth coming out of the shadows?”

 

A: And yet Boswell added that he'd be watching the next batch of Sunday games.

F; And so will we. So if there's a problem with the NFL culture, we're part of it because we buy into it with our cable TV fees and just our interest in the games. Anyone who wrings his or her hands over football should take the logical next step of not watching the games anymore.

A: We have other things we can do on weekends.

F: But how many of us will do that? We're much too used to being entertained, and feeling entitled to it.

A: There's plenty of hypocrisy to go around.

F: Mine included. As I was watching that Notre Dame-Navy game this month, a part of me was thinking, “Holy cow, what an expenditure of money and emotion for something that is, in the great scheme of things, really kind of a silly spectacle.” And with the Blue Angels flyover and the usual hoopla for the National Anthem, I was thinking, “Aren't we injecting some kind of solemn and vital national pride into something that's just a game?” But by golly, I sure was thrilled by those screaming jets.

A: Big deal. Now if they'd been carrying some wing-walkers, then you'd really have a show!

 

THE CHOICES PEOPLE MAKE

F: I think in some ways players make a deal with the devil. It's what I used to say about steroid users like Lyle Alzado. In 1992, as he was dying from the effects of his drug use, Alzado wrote this in Sports Illustrated:

 

“My hair's gone, I wobble when I walk and have to hold onto someone for support, and I have trouble remembering things. My last wish? That no one else ever dies this way.”

 

A: But others did, and more will die from the accumulated effects of all those concussions.

F: It's impossible for a player not to realize the potential dangers. Some will always decide that fame and fortune are worth the risks. But the most important decisions might be made by future generations of parents. If fewer and fewer kids are allowed to play football, the game will either change significantly or die.

A: It would take decades, but it could happen.

F: As we've noted before, 70 years ago the three most popular sports in America were baseball, boxing and horse racing. 

A: Two of those are long gone from the top tier now.

F: In April 2012 we did a column with the headline, “Can Football Keep Taking These Hits?” At the time we were talking about the brain-injury crisis and the Saints “Bountygate” mess, and we asked, “Is football's very future clouded by the safety issue?”

A: The future certainly isn't any clearer now.

 

WAKE UP, MR. SANDERS!

F: Well, this was NOT what the Bucks expected from their new $44 million man, Larry Sanders, through the first five games of the season.

A: Only 52 minutes on the court in three games, and more fouls committed (9) than points scored (8).

F: And a thumb injury that may or may not have been suffered in a bar fight after the home opener. He missed the home games against Cleveland and Dallas, ostensibly because of the injury but perhaps also as a lesson from coach Larry Drew.

A: He won't be charged with anything, but Sanders did issue an apology with the standard euphemisms—“put myself in a bad situation... made some bad decisions.”

F: That must be some place, Apartment 720. It was also the spot where a half-dozen Marquette hoopsters got nailed for underage drinking in March 2012.

A: I guess it draws the suburban crowd. The guy who allegedly was involved in the fight with Sanders was said to be from Sussex.

F: Besides the dumbness of getting into the incident, what the hell was Sanders doing out on the town at a time when his wife was close to having a baby? The birth happened less than two days later.

A: You don't want to say a guy shouldn't go out at all, but at that time of night a lot can happen that isn't good.

F: Especially for a guy whose fat four-year contract makes him one of the faces of the franchise, if not the face.

A: Well, he's sure done nothing to earn that $44 million yet.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek is a candidate for the Packers' practice squad.

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