Almost everyone loves a good conspiracy theory. For the national sports media, the New England Patriots provide more than enough fodder for their desire for conspiratorial fire. Whether it was ‘Spygate’, ‘Deflategate’, or ‘Hate-Gate’ (hating the Patriots for being good for so long), the Pats are often the target of sensationalized stories that detract from their on-field accomplishments.
However, on May 17th the Patriots and their star quarterback, Tom Brady, found themselves involved in a story for which the focal point is greater than a slightly under-inflated football or a misplaced camera on the sidelines. In a live interview yesterday on ‘CBS This Morning’ Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen, told host Charlie Rose that Brady had ‘a concussion last year’. She added that he’s had concussions (in the past) that ‘we don’t talk about.’
Ironically, the interview was designed to increase awareness of climate change. However, the media buzz it created centered around the NFL’s concussion protocol and whether enough is being done by the league and its teams to protect its players. It also gave more ammunition to Patriots conspiracy theorists. This segment of fans believes the defending Super Bowl Champions and its star quarterback are trying to pull another fast one on the NFL.
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Plenty of documentation exists on the danger of head injuries and the impact on NFL players’ health. Repeated head trauma and concussions can lead to the development of a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Disturbing stories about the post-playing lives of ex-NFL stars such as the late Junior Seau, and most recently, Nick Buoniconti, arouse feelings of shock and empathy for those suffering from this terrible condition. If Bundchen’s statements about Brady suffering multiple concussions are accurate, one can understand her concern for her husband’s health.
Implementation of the Game Day Concussion Protocol came in 2009, with changes made in 2011 and 2016. In short, any player that enters the concussion protocol during a game can no longer stay in the contest. The player can’t return until cleared by team physicians. This includes an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant to ensure impartiality. The controversy here is that Brady hasn’t been listed on any Patriots’ injury report with concussion symptoms. Furthermore, Brady never exited a game to undergo the concussion protocol.
The NFL’s Vice President of Communications, Brian McCarthy quickly responded to these claims. He said that there were ‘no records that indicate that Mr. Brady suffered a head injury or concussion, or exhibited or complained of concussion symptoms.’ McCarthy also stated that the NFL would be in contact with the NFLPA to ‘gather more information.’ The Patriots, as well as Brady, have yet to comment on the story.
The quick and ‘easy’ response would be to point the finger in the direction of the Patriots and Brady. One could almost hear the ‘here we go again’ arguments filling the national sports columns and talk show airwaves, as this story broke. In some circles, it already has. ‘They’re (Patriots) cheating again,’ or ‘They play games with the injury report’, have been common responses by the fans and media alike. Conversely, some will slice a bigger piece of the ‘blame pie’ for the NFL. They will point out that the protocol allows for its players to conceal concussion symptoms, and thus remain undiagnosed.
For Brady, it creates another set of questions, which he must answer. Many local and national media outlets are calling for Brady to address his wife’s statements, and rightfully so. For the Patriots, it’s another possible ‘gate’. This puts them in the crosshairs of those ready to pounce on the NFL’s powerhouse franchise. For the NFL, it’s an issue which cover32/Patriots’ managing editor Ian Glendon wrote ‘puts the effectiveness of the league’s protocol into question,‘ and one they hope will ‘go away quickly.’
Instead of calling Oliver Stone to fine-tune a great conspiracy script, all parties involved should take a closer look at the values challenged. This especially includes NFL fans. Have fans become too Machiavellian, and thus place too much emphasis on the ‘ends justifying the means?’ ‘Is there too much pressure placed on athletes to play through an injury, even when their own neurological health is at stake? Is having players like Brady and other marquee stars on the field the only thing about which we truly care?
The answers to these questions are not clear-cut. And hastily assigning the pieces of the ‘blame pie’ is not the way to fix the problem. Maybe assigning blame isn’t the answer? For the NFL, its teams (including the Patriots), its players (including Brady) and its fans, its time to look inward. Each player has to determine when the threat of neurological injury crosses the line from simply ‘playing hurt’ to risking serious long-term health effects. Then, all parties can work on improving a solution to the problem of CTE.