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NFL Moves to Reduce Head Trauma in Game


Mark Rypien’s first act was one many would kill for.

Rypien was a two-time All Star in the National Football League, playing for 11 seasons and for five different teams.

In 1992, Rypien led the Washington team to a Super Bowl championship and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player for his efforts.

If Rypien’s football life was a dream, his post-playing career has been a nightmare, marked with depression, anxiety, alleged domestic violence against his wife, and, by his own admission, bad decisions.

One of those bad decisions was a suicide attempt, as Rypien reportedly took 150 pills and downed them with alcohol. Only his wife’s quick-thinking actions, forcing him to regurgitate those pills, saved his life.

Rypien, who is 55, believes that his current state, a "complex stew of mental health conditions" has been caused by numerous blows he took to the head during his career.

The former quarterback was the lead plaintiff in a massive lawsuit against the NFL, which claimed the league has historically withheld information about the effect of ongoing head trauma and concussions brought on by contact from football.

Rypien and 4,500 other former players and plaintiffs were awarded more than $765 million, but Rypien said he and the others are waiting for the money.

In the interim, National Football League owners perhaps did something last week to prevent more cases like Mark Rypien’s.

In the view of some in and out of the game, the owners’ unanimous decision to penalize any player who lowers his head to initiate contact is the most impactful move since the forward pass.

The ownership has not decided exactly what the penalties will be, or more importantly, how liberally they will be applied.

But Atlanta Falcons executive Rich McKay, the chair of the league’s competition committee, has said that every player, from quarterback to defensive back, is subject to punishment for violating the rule.

Said McKay "It’s one of the most dangerous techniques there is, but yet we’ve allowed it to creep in and it’s now very prevalent. And we need to get it out. And we’re not going to get it out by saying, ‘We need to teach it better,’ we’re going to get it out by penalizing it."

It’s natural to believe that the NFL’s actions are as much about guarding their precious shield, the league’s logo, from future legal attack than protecting the long-term health of the players.

However, the league’s rulers may have had places like Maryland in mind in enacting this rule.

Last month, the House Ways and Means Committee in Annapolis quashed a bill that would have barred tackle football in youth leagues on public lands until the participants reach high school age.

Many otherwise well-intentioned youth league coaches aren’t teaching proper tackling techniques. Worse yet, they’re allowing kids to lead with their heads, rather than train them to hit what they see.

Perhaps the NFL’s draconian approach may be just the device to filter the word down to youth, high school and college levels.

In the process, we just might see fewer nightmare second acts like Mark Rypien’s.

And that’s how I see it for this week. 

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.