Like most things that come and go while leaving something just short of an indelible wreck in their wake, the NFL's highly publicized tango with replacement referees to begin this season will one day soon be largely forgotten, if that day hasn't come already. It's similar to last year's NBA lockout, maybe even certain political issues: the public gets up in arms while the spotlight is still shining bright and they're being directly affected, but soon LeBron is back to dunking and Dirk Nowitzki is back to hitting one-footed fadeaways and suddenly it's easy to forget about how the owners screwed the players out of a huge percentage of basketball-related income, just because they could. This NFL season is moving along just great, exactly like every other NFL season, now that the real refs are back, and those bizarre opening weeks plagued by blown calls and general on-field nonsense will soon disappear amid highly competitive playoff races, single-elimination postseason wars and, of course, Super Bowl parties. But after Week 10, let's call it "Concussion Week" until the next "Concussion Week", I can't help but think back to the replacement refs.
Why were those baboons in charge of policing the world's most beloved and profitable league and why did it take something as egregious as the blown Hail Mary call in the Packers-Seahawks game to finally force action? Think about it: while everyone was blasting the replacement refs and the lunacy of it all, no one was talking about concussions.
The NFL knows what it's doing and it surely knows that concussion awareness raises the biggest -- only? -- threat to America's new pastime, and, more importantly, their money machine. The NFL has taken strides to address the sport's jarring concussion issue in recent years, though many believe it ultimately amounts to a facade only being put in place to protect against lawsuits, to protect the league's millions and millions. Concussion protocol is rewritten every year, so is the regulation on those those vicious hits that cause head trauma. Fines go up, rulings come down. I will give the NFL credit for this: just over the last year, it's hard to imagine something like what happened to Colt McCoy last season happening again.
You remember it, right?
McCoy would stay in the game despite the minor fact that he likely didn't know what continent he was on, which is nearly as galling as the fact that the NFL, for a brief period, actually sold pictures of McCoy looking all dazed and confused on its official website. Because, money. Now there are neurological experts rushing to the sideline whenever something like this happens, a baby step in the long run, but a baby step in the right direction.
It still didn't prevent a few egregious happenings in Week 10.
The league absolved the Bears of wrongdoing for how they handled Jay Cutler's concussion on Sunday, namely putting him back out there for seven more plays before he finally showed "symptoms". Maybe that's enough to get the Bears off the hook and maybe it isn't, but it can't be ignored that on the very next play, Cutler scrambled for a gutsy first down run and was instantly hit with yet another shot to the head. It was reported to be Cutler's sixth concussion of his career, and that number is probably low.
Texans' defender Tim Dobbins -- who said after the game that Cutler ran into him -- was fined $30,000 on Wednesday, something that should have set off any plugged-in fan's bullshit radar: so the Bears did nothing wrong by sending Cutler out there for seven more plays after the hit from Dobbins, and only Dobbins is held accountable?
That's a tough sell, especially on the same week that Alex Smith threw a touchdown pass with blurred vision after sustaining a concussion of his own.
This isn't meant to be high-horse moral hand-wringing or some crusade to get the government to outlaw the sport: quite the contrary. The players know the dangers of what they're doing and they're compensated incredibly for it. Would you rather live until 90 and lead a largely pedestrian, mediocre life, or live like a king in your 20s and 30s and die before 60? I think that's a legitimate argument and a decision no one should fault the players for making.
Because, in truth, there's probably not much the league can do, at this point in time, when it comes to protecting players. The defensive players are too big and too fast and the nature of the sport is simply too violent. Technology can't keep up, or at least it hasn't yet. What we're left with is a tough guy culture predicated on phrases like "got your bell rung". Yeah, just rub some dirt on that brain of yours, you'll be good to go.
That's not to absolve the NFL of concussion hypocrisy whatsoever, because it certainly exists. The league cares about concussions only to a point, and that point is the intersection of money going into their pockets.
Need an easily digestible example? Look no further than how the league and Bears handled the curious case of Hunter Hillenmeyer. After sustaining the last in a series of severe concussions, Hillenmeyer's doctors advised him to walk away from the game. Hillenmeyer placed a claim on an injury protection benefit, which is part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, for $900,000. The league swiftly shot it down.
Hillenmeyer saw right through it:
"It makes me sick to see (the league) claim it is driving concussion research and putting player safety first," Hillenmeyer told me.
"The whole system is designed to do one thing: make owners money. ... The fact that a case as black and white as mine can't even get resolved is indicative of a much, much deeper truth. Owners know what the game is doing to players, but once they fully acknowledge it, the gig is up."
This is far from the only example. A countless number of former players have tried to sue the league, including Aaron Sears, a now 27-year old offensive lineman who suffers from uncontrollable bouts with rage due to the concussions that forced him to retire from the game so young. The heartbreaking sadness of what happened to Junior Seau and Dave Duerson is already well-documented.
Bears CEO Ted Phillips has talked about a culture change, but that's a long way from happening. Remember what Brian Urlacher told HBO this offseason? "I'm not going to sit in there and say 'I got a concussion. I can't go in for the rest of the game.' "
And there's the other part of the problem, and the reason this isn't going away anytime soon. Sidney Crosby, the best hockey player on Earth, was sidelined nearly a year with a concussion. Alex Smith got one last week and he's going to play against the Bears this Monday. Who knows what's right, what's wrong. It's just scary, that's all, and perhaps the players should even be lauded for their level of commitment to the fans and their franchises. If they're making the conscious decision to play and not getting bullied into it, if they're taking Urlacher's warrior mentality, what is there to do? Maybe nothing.
I wrote on Monday that football is turning into a 'gut-wrenching test of the viewer's empathy' and perhaps that was overdoing it. Should you feel bad watching this great sport? Of course not. Just don't think this story, this scary, horrible, depressing stuff, is going away anytime soon.