Baseball’s Lesson from the NFL’s Concussion Problem

The New York Times has completed an investigation into the NFL’s concussion research and thus, by proxy, its public statements about the connection between playing professional football and concussions. They’ve concluded, simply, that the NFL has misled both the public and the players as to the very real negative health implications of playing pro football.

Anyone who has followed the NFL over the past few seasons shouldn’t be surprised by this finding. The NFL has a vested interest in presenting pro football, their product, as safe both for the players and for the fans, a vested interest that they pursue without regard to the health and safety of anyone involved with the sport. The idea the NFL might lie about concussions and brain injuries — or seek to cover up the connection between them and playing football — likely isn’t that surprising.

As baseball fans (though I count myself as a football fan as well) we should consider ourselves lucky. Baseball as a sport does far less chewing up and spitting out of it players relative to football, something that makes watching the sport as much as I (and I suspect you) do easier to handle from a moral standpoint. That’s not to say the sport is free of the nefarious — the treatment of minor leaguers does spring to mind, for example — but rather to acknowledge that baseball is in a better place when it comes to concussions than football.

Of course, that’s like comparing a regular person favorably to an axe murderer, so there’s some room to grow if you want to be a superhero. The point is, though, that baseball is, compared to football, doing alright when it comes to the concussion front. The NY Times isn’t going to break any front-page stories about Bud Selig covering up a concussion report. But that doesn’t mean baseball is in the clear.

Shortly after the implementation of airbags, doctors started noticing something. People in severe car accidents were coming away with a new type of injury they hadn’t seen before in similar accidents. Passengers were surviving crashes they wouldn’t have before thanks to the airbags deploying, but were experiencing severe trauma to their legs. That’s odd. Why would airbags injure people’s legs? In fact, they didn’t. The leg injuries had always been there. Doctors simply hadn’t noticed them before because, prior to the use of airbags, anyone who had suffered such an injury had also died. But now, thanks to airbags, we found a new and heretofore undetected injury caused by head-on automobile collisions.

The NFL’s misuse of players and lying about concussions will fall on other sports. People are and justifiably should be upset about the danger that pro football poses in terms of head injuries. The natural extension of that anger is a greater understanding of concussions, at least from a public perspective. That is going to impact baseball, which until now has been content to be seen as the safer but not-as-boring-as-golf alternative to football. This newfound public understanding of concussions is a good thing. And baseball needs to embrace it through action.

Part of the reason the NFL is seen by so many as a bunch of money-grubbing power-hungry business guys who don’t care a whit about the health of their players isn’t because they are, but rather because they lied. Yesterday, my son broke a part of a neighbor’s fence. It wasn’t a huge problem. I fixed it rather easily, but he didn’t know that and thought he’d done something horrible. So he lied to me about it. I punished him by taking away some of his privileges not because of what he’d done (that had been an accident) but because he lied to me about it.

Often the lying is far worse than the original misdeed. The NFL had a moral obligation to tell, at a minimum, the players what they found when they found something that could negatively impact their health. They didn’t do it and that was a lie. Since that lie, many, many players have been hurt during games they went into with incomplete information on the real risks. Baseball may or may not possess much research on concussions and head injuries and CTE, but they need to start now, make it a priority, and be honest about what they find.

It should be pointed out that Baseball has already done some to help curb concussions and help players suffering from them. The elimination of home-plate collisions, a source of concussions for decades, from the game was a good step. They’ve also implemented cognitive testing, and added a seven-day DL for concussion sufferers. These are real improvements. Yet more needs to happen.

Perhaps the largest problem as far as baseball is concerned is catchers, who get concussed at a rate far higher than players at other positions. Any data I could present to you to support that point would show a rise in concussions — or, more accurately, a rise in reported concussions. That could be accurate or it could be simply an issue of education and reporting. As Mike Scioscia told the LA Times, “In my day, if you got your bell rung, you took a deep breath and went out for the next play. I spent the night in the hospital with a concussion once and played the next day.” When you’re dealing with events getting reported by humans using different scales and different biases you’re going to get incomplete (at best) and worthless (at worst) data.

Still, catchers are the biggest at-risk group and baseball must take the lead in attempting to alleviate the problem. They don’t necessarily need to eliminate it entirely though that would be nice, but increasing the understanding of the role the mask plays in catcher concussions and going after similar information would do a lot to make playing catcher and baseball a lot safer.

Concussions aren’t automobile accidents and they aren’t solvable with airbags, but the commonality here is that, like the leg injuries that were there all along, concussions are kind of a new thing even though they were always here. The NFL is, through a combination of their own incompetence and craven selfishness, highlighting this fact. Baseball should be paying attention, and if they’re not acting already, then as the NFL has shown, they better get to it, because the time to begin was yesterday.





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TKDCmember
6 years ago

In Mike Scioscia’s day they also walked to and from the ballpark, five miles uphill both ways. But he doesn’t remember that for some reason.

Mike Scioscia never played more than 142 games in a season. The hardscrabble stories of the tough guys in a bygone era are just bullshit.

srpst23
6 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Yeah, he had 4 seasons in his career with greater than 1,000 innings caught. That seemed like a decent amount to me so I checked Yadier Molina anecdotally as to me he seems like a fairly representative sample of a veteran, “durable” catcher. Well, never mind. Yadier already has 8 seasons of greater than 1,000 innings caught, and some more innings on top of that at 1B, which Scioscia never had. Old timers love to act like they had it much harder. I didn’t even bother to check Sal Perez, he probably has more than 4 years with more than 1,000 innings caught already.

Richiemember
6 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Scioscia just pointed out how concussions were dealt with in his day. Accurately pointed out, mind you. Nothing more than that there that I can see.

TKDCmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Richie

Maybe you’re right, but it sure sounds like he implying that he was tougher and that’s why he went out and played the next day. His next line was “That wouldn’t be the best course of action today. You have to be cautious.”
This is an ambiguous statement. He could be saying that you have to be cautious because we know more (if you are looking at it from a player perspective), or you have to be cautious because kids today are a bunch of namby-pambies (if you are looking at it from a management perspective).

Bipmember
6 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Yes this is an extremely important thing to determine because I found that quote could be interpreted in two completely opposite ways. He could have meant “we’ve come a long way since then” or he could have meant “catchers are pansies now.”

I wish Matthew had made a note as to how it was intended, or linked to the original story or context.

Bipmember
6 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Though, the additional quote you added to me strongly suggests he means that we know more now and that we’ve realized that things have improved since his day.

Captain Tenneal
6 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

I’m pretty sure I have an old highlight tape where Scioscia gets knocked out cold on a play at the plate (and still held on to the ball somehow). Maybe that’s why he doesn’t remember.