NFL culture conflicts with concussion safety

League has stepped up precautions, but incentives remain for players to stay in the game

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Eight weeks ago, when the Green Bay Packers traveled to Denver, left tackle David Bakhtiari urged his fellow offensive linemen to try on his helmet.

Bakhtiari started wearing the Riddell Speedflex as a rookie in 2013. It was bigger than his previous helmet, better padding. Built to better protect against concussions, the trainers told him. It was designed to reduce the impact of head collisions while also shielding against side contact.

When Bakhtiari had the first and only concussion of his career two years ago, he said, it was time to take every precaution.

“I got my first-ever concussion when I got in the league,” Bakhtiari said, “and I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m going to go with whatever the best they got.’ My head is the most important thing. I want to make it work. I want to be able to remember my kids’ names when I’m 65, when I’m old. That’s my biggest fear, is when I’m old it's just not working anymore. That would suck.”

Like a salesman, Bakhtiari told his teammates of the helmet’s benefits. “It’s got a great interior,” he’d say. “It’s like a Cadillac in there.” They finally tried it on in Denver.

When the Packers played at the Carolina Panthers the next week, right tackle Bryan Bulaga (who suffered a concussion last season), right guard T.J. Lang (who has had four concussions) and center Corey Linsley (who has had one) were wearing the Riddell Speedflex.

“I’d put it on me 100 percent,” Bakhtiari said. “I’m the reason why those guys got the helmet.”

The helmet is just one example of the efforts toward advancements in concussion safety the NFL has made in the past decade. Technology has helped make the game safer, some players say.

But by how much can you reduce the risk of concussions?

That’s the question the league has grappled with for years. The question once again will be shoved to the forefront over the next few weeks, starting Christmas Day when the movie “Concussion” debuts in theaters. The movie will attach a major budget and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in actor Will Smith to a critical league issue, examining how chronic traumatic encephalopathy was discovered.

Seven of eight Packers players asked said they plan to see the movie. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers headlines the group. Most, including Rodgers, credit Smith’s involvement in the movie as a primary reason. Their motivation is less educational, more entertainment.

Clearly, the concussion issue effects them directly.

“How haven’t I seen it change?” linebacker Clay Matthews said when asked about the trajectory of concussion awareness since he entered the league as a first-round pick in 2009.

It’s clear concussion awareness never has been higher. For evidence, look no further than this week’s game between the Packers and Arizona Cardinals. It will be one of the biggest games of the Packers’ season, a matchup of double-digit winning teams with potential playoff seeding implications.

The Packers may have to play it without their top cornerback, Sam Shields. Before he can return to the field, he must pass concussion protocol.

Considering the Cardinals boast what Packers cornerback Casey Hayward called a “loaded” group of receivers — led by Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald — Shields’ absence would not be ideal. Doesn’t matter. There is no longer any debate when it comes to concussions. Can’t pass protocol? Don’t play.

“I think the difference is on the diagnosis,” Rodgers said. “They’re on top of it. The medical staff and the rules in place really do a good job of making sure a guy is healthy before they come back. In the past, they didn’t have the testing we have to go through now to get back on the field.”

There are more safeguards in place than ever. Baseline tests. Files of data. Gone is the barbaric era of two-a-day practices. Through a 16-game season, Linsley said the Packers are scheduled to have only 14 padded practices, each coming on Thursday of game week.

This year, the league placed certified athletic trainers in the press box for every game. Their sole job is to spot potential concussions on the field. They’re armed with the power to stop any game. The ATC spotters may be the best idea the league has had to date for making the game safer.

As they progress through their football careers, players learn to play through pain. There is no quit in their mentality. Availability, coaches say, is the greatest ability they can have.

Many times, players need to be saved from themselves.

“I think guys are more aware of the long-term effects,” outside linebacker Julius Peppers said, “but these guys are still warriors and gladiators. So sometimes they want to fight through it. If you think you might be dinged, you want to keep yourself out there. You may not tell anybody. The culture is still that, you know.

“Some guys may feel a little dinged up top, but they won’t say anything. It may take a while for that part of it to not be a part of the game, but I think as far as the awareness and the protocol, has been a positive change.”

Peppers, in his 14th NFL season, never has had a diagnosed concussion. He credits his good fortune to learning how to tackle properly at a young age, leading with his shoulder and not his head.

So it’s hard for him to say what he would do if faced with the decision to report concussion symptoms during a game, because he’s never needed to. But Peppers looks around the Packers locker room. The “warrior” mentality, he said, goes against the grain of player safety. Contracts have robust roster bonuses, financial incentives for being available on Sundays.

Nobody enjoys losing money.

“I think you play through it,” Peppers said. “Unless it’s visible, like obvious, blatant that you’re a little woozy, I think for the most part guys are going to try to stay in the game.”

Until the culture changes, the extent to which concussion risk can be reduced always will be limited. Even Bakhtiari, among the Packers most concussion conscious players, said he doesn’t know what he’d do. He’s taken every precaution he can, but it’s hard for players to take themselves out of a game, he said.

“I’d be less inclined to power through a head injury than I would a body or extremity injury,” Bakhtiari said. “That’s a very dicey subject. You’re talking about repercussions for the future. ‘Oh, man, my thumb won’t really work that well.’ Well, OK. I’d rather have my thumb not working when I’m older than not remember my wife’s name or what am I supposed to do today, what my job is, or why the hell are you all even talking to me right now? That’s a lot bigger issue.

“I haven’t been put in that predicament. So I don’t know what I would do.”

rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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