Credit: Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

The first pass to Chris Cooley in Chicago went right through his hands. A Pro Bowl tight end, Cooley was wide open in the middle of the field. Flubs like that don’t happen to him. But this was the first ball thrown Cooley’s way since he went out with a concussion a week earlier. He’s admitted to having three concussions as a college player, too.

Perhaps because of the health concerns and the oddness of the dropped pass, Fox’s cameras followed Cooley to the sidelines after the play. He threw his helmet to the ground, then appeared to lose track of it while it rolled. For a few seconds, he looked, as boxing folks used to say, punch drunk.

Like boxing, football’s never been thought of as a safe sport. But it’s never seemed as hazardous as it does now. Following a highlight reel’s worth of head injuries to Cooley and other high-profile players, the NFL ordered players to eliminate head shots on tackles. Referees were advised to toss players out of the game for helmet-to-helmet hits.

The decree came a year to the week after Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article about football’s cruelty started a discussion about concussions in football that has only gotten louder.

“It used to be you advised people against playing football to save the knees,” says Gabe Mirkin, a first-wave sports medicine practitioner. “Now, it’s all about the head. We still don’t know much about this, but everybody’s getting scared, because what we are learning is scary. Basically, now we know that the more hits, the more brain damage.”

Mirkin, now 75 and retired to Florida, opened a Bethesda medical practice in 1965. For decades, he hosted a locally produced health talk-radio show. During the George Allen Era, the Harvard-trained M.D. was also briefly a consultant to the Redskins. Back then, he says, concussions weren’t taken too seriously by the team’s medical staff, let alone the football commentariat.

“During my time with the Redskins, when a player would get hit in the head, we’d do nothing,” Mirkin recalls.” He’d stay out right after the hit, then say, ‘I’m going back in!’ And we wouldn’t do anything to stop him. There were no rules.”

No kidding: A 1975 Washington Post profile of Redskins team physician P.M. Palumbo described an incident in which the doctor was diagnosing special teams tough guy Rusty Tillman, who’d been KO’d during a game. As the doctor went about his work, a team official became perturbed that the procedure was keeping the player on the sidelines. So, without consulting Palumbo, the official simply trotted up to the press box to announce that Tillman had “only had his bell rung” and would be returning to the field presently.

Mirkin says he stays up on sports medicine by writing a weekly health column for his website. But there are some topics he won’t ever get around to covering. “I haven’t written a column on ‘How to Not Get a Concussion Playing Football’ yet,” he says, “because there is no way to do that, unless you can figure out how to play and don’t get hit.”

The NFL’s sudden rules tweaking struck me as an exercise in crisis public relations rather than a rational shift in health policy. The new enforcement guidelines, after all, will only protect the ball carriers from cranium-crushing collisions, perhaps making the broadcasts less violent. But what made Gladwell’s article so scary was that it showed how the skill players who are very occasionally on the business end of highlight hits aren’t any more likely to suffer brain damage than are the linemen who bang on each other at the line of scrimmage play after play after play.

There’s nothing the NFL has done of late to keep the big guys in the trenches from leaving the game with noggins full of brain pudding. So I figured the edicts were little more than a desperate move from folks who are worried about losing the female audience they’ve worked so hard to cultivate through things like a low-brow licensed apparel campaign—including a TV spot featuring Mrs. Dan Snyder—and an over-the-top breast cancer awareness effort that has everybody on the field, even referees and ballboys, sporting pink accessories.

Women may not play in the NFL, but their views about whether 8-year-old sons are allowed to go out for Pop Warner have a significant impact over who eventually does.

Mirkin, too, feels that the NFL’s moves are strictly PR. But he doesn’t think it’s aimed only at females.

“This shows that the NFL is frightened about getting sued,” he says. “And they should be frightened. Mark my words: The NFL is going to be at the end of a lawsuit where a guy says they should be paying for this or that criminal behavior, because some guy got hit in the head too much playing football, and a jury will be convinced of that. And that is a reasonable argument. The brain controls everything. And there’s accumulating evidence to show that getting hit in the head can cause anything to change—thought processes, mood, anything. The NFL has to act like it’s taking action.”

In hopes of getting the latest on concussions, I spoke with Martijn Jansma, a researcher who for years has studied damaged brains at the National Institutes of Health. His answers to my questions included a lot of clauses like “the micro bleedings related to a concussion reduce the capability of the brain to inhibit the default mode regions,” which my brain couldn’t handle.

I did understand Jansma, though, when he said that even though he became an NFL fan after moving here from Holland, his work left him scared of our national pastime.

“I don’t think I would let my children play American football, but I may let them play flag football,” he says. “But of course I would prefer if they play real football—soccer!” (Even for soccer, Jansma wishes “headers [would] become outlawed” in children’s leagues, also to prevent brain damage.)

Jansma says he expects future policies dealing with concussed players will be far more severe than merely keeping a concussion sufferer off the field for a while. Jansma sees prescribing “real rest…no TV, no reading, no work” as part of the rehab regimen. He adds that there’s a greater understanding now why concussion sufferers can have “long-term difficulties with task focus” and why players don’t always know that they’re injured: “Because there are no nerves in the brain you may not feel that there is anything wrong with you a couple of days after a concussion,” he says.

Chris Cooley went on his radio show on WJFK on Monday and was asked about his health. Co-hosts Chad Dukes and LaVar Arrington said he looked “woozy” on the field. “The concussion’s fine,” Cooley said. He said that the only body part he was worried about was his twisted ankle.

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