Berkeley panel examines football, concussions
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Since time immemorial -- or at least, since the late 1800s, when professional football as today's American audience knows it began -- burly, super-sized men have been colliding and fantastically, expecting not to get seriously hurt.
Denial and ignorance have been greatest when it comes to concussions, which is why the organizers of a future Berkeley Repertory Theatre production, "The American Football Project," invited a panel of talking heads to talk about heads on Aug. 5 at the Rep's Harrison street rehearsal hall.
Bringing heft and humor to the discussion was the panel: KJ Sanchez, playwright and founder/CEO of American Records Theater; writer Jenny Mercein; Dr. Cindy Chang, co-founder of the California Concussion Coalition, chief medical officer for the 2012 US Olympic Team and former UC Berkeley head team physician; former San Francisco 49er Ben Lynch; and J. Douglas Hollie, former Seattle Seahawk and chapter vice president of the National Association of Retired NFL Players, Northern California.
The historical picture, it turns out, is a masochistic mélange.
"We used to say when you hit someone, you touch their soul. So I used to hit their soul, hard as I could," Hollie said.
"You learn about working through adversity, but you also pick up playing through injury and knocking someone unconscious," Lynch agreed.
"I was a woman struggling to establish myself as someone who didn't play football," Chang said about her efforts as head team physician to convince coaches that a "ding" warranted play stoppage.
It took players with lifetime disabilities like neurodegenerative chronic traumatic encephalopathy and suicides to call a time out on the sport's gladiator-like race to win games and respect.
"I'm embarrassed I went to Cal and didn't even know what a concussion was," Lynch confessed.
Chang cautioned against sensationalism, saying, "There's research showing correlation between concussions and changes in the brain that lead to emotional and interpersonal difficulties, but for now, 'A' (concussion) does not mean 'B' (permanent repercussions)."
Hollie, a player from the old-school style of football, said, "Players now are soft. When I played, the ice tub was your best friend after each session." Still, he's a highly educated man and despite pining after the days of talking smack and the electricity of entering a Monday Night Football stadium, he said play selection favoring air over ground game could reduce injuries overall.
Lynch said the NFL responds to litigation more than to logic.
"In 1994, after plaintiffs filed, the NFL named a rheumatologist to head up the research," he said of the league's supposed interest in looking into the issue. "Where would we be, in 2013, if the NFL had worked in earnest? We wasted (that time)."
Chang agreed that legal issues drive medical ones, but applauded any change leading to improved reporting by players and increased oversight by trainers, coaches and physicians.
Mercein's football lineage, from father Chuck Mercein (who played professionally for the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and others) to a nephew who is playing the game, was conflicted. Her nephew "has a brain hemorrhage condition, but he's passionate about the sport and the family admires the value system," she said, sounding apologetic.
The "invisibility" of concussions was introduced as a concern and caused Chang to speak of her own traumatic head injury. Knocked from a bike, and even though helmeted, she realized patients don't report concussions because they don't think they have one. "It took my son, telling me, "Mom, you're not right," for me to know," she said.
The issue of money and profits loomed like a grim reaper as the panel concluded. Lynch questioned the NFL's marketing agreement with helmet-maker Riddell, asking, "Why is safety equipment a source of revenue?"
And Chang suggested decreased salaries and an expanded roster (the NFL does not have a disabled list like baseball), so injured players can leave the field. Lynch endorsed Sanchez's overarching aspirations, saying, "People underestimate the power of one voice. Every time you have a conversation, look what can happen."