Football teams, brain injuries, and independent doctors

From The New York Times, reporting on Congressional hearings regarding head-injuries by NFL players:

Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League, defended the league’s response to the issue of concussions and the care of retired players before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in a hearing called to discuss the long-term effects of head injuries in football.

Goodell joined a chorus of voices discussing the issue at the daylong hearing. While DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the N.F.L. players association, called for more independent study of head injuries and promised that players’ safety would not be a bargaining issue with the league, a former N.F.L. team executive, Gay Culverhouse, made an impassioned plea for doctors independent of the teams to oversee care of the players.

It was Goodell, however, who was the focus of interest for Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, the committee’s chairman. Conyers pressed Goodell to address the link between concussions sustained while playing football and long-term brain deterioration. The N.F.L., mostly through the comments of Dr. Ira Casson, the head of the league’s concussion committee, has frequently played down studies that have made such a link and cited the need for further study.

Asked by Conyers whether he believed there was a link between concussions and dementia, Goodell replied, “The answer is, medical experts would know better than I do.” He went on to say that he encouraged the debate and that the league was adjusting rules and standards of care to make the game safer even before the answer is found. . . .

“In a matter of public health, I do not think it’s acceptable for the league and the players association to hide behind the collective bargaining agreement,” Conyers said. “These are life-and-death issues that go to the heart of our most popular sport.”. . .

In his opening remarks, Smith, the director of the players union, did not directly take issue with the N.F.L.’s approach, although in the statement he filed with the committee he assailed the N.F.L. for “denigrating, suppressing and ignoring” research that has linked football concussions to long-term cognitive degeneration. He did, however, declare that medical issues should not be subject to negotiation in the collective bargaining agreement.

“The players of the N.F.L. will not bargain for medical care,” he said. “We will not bargain for safety. We will continue to bargain with the league, but medical care is not a bargaining issue.” . . .

Dr. Robert Cantu, a researcher from Boston University’s School of Medicine, said he believed there was “ongoing and convincing evidence” of a link between sports concussions and long-term illness. Culverhouse, former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and daughter of the franchise’s original owner, made the most emotional plea in her opening statement, choosing to focus on the status of team doctors. She called for independent doctors to work at games, caring for players on both sidelines.

“What this committee has to understand is, the team doctor is hired by the coach and paid by the front office,” Culverhouse said. “This team doctor is not an advocate for the players. That doctor’s role is to get those players back on the field. I have seen a wall of players surround a player as he has his knee injected so he can get back on the field.

“The players get to a point where they refuse to tell the team doctor they have suffered a concussion. They do not self-report because they know there is a backup player on the bench ready to take their position. The team doctor dresses as a coach on the sideline and he acts in many ways as a coach on the sideline. If a player chooses independent medical counsel he is considered ‘not a team player.’ He becomes a pariah. We need to stop that.” . . .

I thought this was interesting, especially this latter part. Here’s my question: Why hasn’t the players’ union hired independent (at least independent of the NFL and individual franchise) doctors to be on hand? They could be paid with union dues and they could negotiate in their collective bargaining agreement that the NFL allow these doctors full access. It’d be a second-opinion for every player, and seems like a good check. I don’t mean to impugn doctors here, but when a normal employee gets an injury or illness he doesn’t (or shouldn’t, anyway) go solely to his company provided clinician to determine whether he can work or not.

I don’t know if it’d fix these other issues, but I’d like to see teams have more independent doctors, and the players union could furnish them. Colleges and high schools have fewer choices for this, unfortunately.

Is coaching overrated?

So asks Gregg Easterbrook, in an article titled “Coaching is Overrated”:

Changing the playcaller sure helped the Redskins!

In the cult of football, surely few things are more overrated than play calling. Much football commentary, from high school stands to the NFL in prime time, boils down to: “If they ran they should have passed, and if they passed they should have run.” Other commentary boils down to: “If it worked, it was a good call, if it failed, it was a bad call,” though the call is only one of many factors in a football play. Good calls are better than bad calls — this column exerts considerable effort documenting the difference. But it’s nonsensical to think that replacing a guy who calls a lot of runs to the left with a guy who calls a lot of runs to the right will transform a team.

One factor here is the Illusion of Coaching. We want to believe that coaches are super-ultra-masterminds in control of events, and coaches do not mind encouraging that belief. But coaching is a secondary force in sports; the athletes themselves are always more important. TMQ’s immutable Law of 10 Percent holds that good coaching can improve a team by 10 percent, bad coaching can subtract from performance by 10 percent — but the rest will always be on the players themselves, their athletic ability and level of devotion, plus luck. If the players are no good or out of sync, it won’t matter what plays are called; if the players are talented and dedicated, they will succeed no matter what the sideline signals in. Unless they have bad luck, which no one can control.

Yes and no. I wholeheartedly agree that playcalling is overrated, and he is right that much of the commentary after games involves a lot of second-guessing full of hindsight bias. Few ever pose the “should he have done X?” question in terms of the probabilities and tendencies at the time, or in the context of the 10 or so seconds available to make such calls. Indeed, I have even argued that there’s a case to be made that the best playcalling might be a controlled but randomized “mixed-strategy.”

The other coaching bogeyman is the aura surrounding “in-game adjustments” or “halftime adjustments,” both of which are supposed to be the “hallmarks of good coaching.” This is another thing where there’s a kernel of truth surrounding by a lot of speculation. Yes, a good coach will not do the same thing over and over again if it isn’t working, or if the other team has figured it out. And yes, coaching a game involves an ongoing process of what the other team is doing (this is one reason why I think, even if adjustments are part of the game, “halftime adjustments” are very much overrated). But if you want to see a bad coach then I’ll show you one who tries to “adjust” to everything the other team is doing with new schemes and ideas built-in midgame. Instead, teams with good coaching pretty much run only things within their plan — i.e. stuff they had practiced during the week. Indeed, much of what fans or commentators will pick out as an “adjustment” was something in the original gameplan that just didn’t get called until the second half because of the flow of the game. Yet how can good coaches both “adjust” throughout a game and also not deviate from what they have practiced?

This brings me to where I depart from Easterbrook, that coaching is minor. (I don’t really know how to judge “overrated” — in relation to what? overrated by whom?) While playcalling is definitely overhyped (hey, the talking heads get paid to talk about something), preparation is extremely important, and much of a gameplan involves contingency planning. It also means that the “base stuff” should have the counters built in, the constraint plays are already there, and the defensive adjustments are easy to make because they are a part of the system. A good offense “implies the counter,” meaning that if a defense adjusts in some way, then playcalling is simple because there’s an obvious counter play to be called. On defense you take away the other team’s best stuff, and focus on other things as it comes, though by dictating to the offense through aggressiveness and by trying to confuse it. Unlike Easterbrook I can’t hang a number on how many wins or losses “coaching” is responsible for (and if I could I’d imagine it varies by level), I can safely say that I think weekly preparation is underrated, because it is rarely talked about — other than platitudes like “we had a great week of practice” — has a long-tail in terms of continual refinement of technique and effort that can only improve incrementally, and that everything run in the games is stuff that has been practiced over and over and over.

Two final points on the Redskins situation. (more…)

The best sentences I read today

As I continue to watch Michigan’s quarterback run the read option against the [Minnesota] Gophers, I now find myself wondering if this play is authentically simple or quietly complex. The read option is a combination of three rudimentary elements of football: spreading the field, running a back off tackle, and the quarterback keeper. It would be an easy play to teach and a safe play to run, even for junior high kids. But it’s still new. It didn’t really exist in the 1970s and ’80s, and when I first saw it employed in the late ’90s, it seemed like an idiotic innovation. It seemed like a way to get your quarterback killed without taking advantage of your tailback. I had always believed teams could not succeed by running the ball out of the shotgun formation. I thought it would never happen. But I was wrong. And I suspect the reason I was wrong was not because I didn’t understand what was happening on this specific play; I suspect it was because I felt like I already understood football. I had played football and written about football and watched it exhaustively for twenty years, so I thought I knew certain inalienable truths about the game. And I was wrong. What I knew were the assumed truths, which are not the same thing. I had brainwashed myself. I was unwilling to admit that my traditional, conservative football values were imaginary and symbolic. They belonged to a game I wasn’t actually watching but was still trying to see. . . .

. . . Barry Sanders running to daylight. Earl Campbell running to darkness. Settling for a field goal late in the first half. Playing for field position when the weather is inclement. Blocking sleds. Salt tablets. Richard Nixon’s favorite sport. That’s what football is, always — and if we stopped believing that, it would seem to matter less.

But that isn’t what football is.

It isn’t. It changes more often than any sport we have. Football was Nixon’s favorite sport, but it was Hunter S. Thompson’s favorite, too. Football coaches will try anything. They’re gonzo. . . .

. . . I don’t know what I see when I watch football. It must be something insane, because I should not enjoy it as much as I do. I must be seeing something so personal and so universal that understanding this question would tell me everything I need to know about who I am, and maybe I don’t want that to happen. But perhaps it’s simply this: Football allows the intellectual part of my brain to evolve, but it allows the emotional part to remain unchanged. It has a liberal cerebellum and a reactionary heart. And this is all I want from everything, all the time, always.

The above is from an excerpt from Chuck Klosterman’s new book, Eating the Dinosaur, that appeared on ESPN.com You can find many more good sentences at the link.

Oklahoma and a walk on the outside

Links to two bits of mine that appeared today:

Erin Andrews to sue the Marriott and Ramada hotels?

I haven’t had much to say on the whole Erin Andrews tumult but I thought this was interesting — and disturbing that the hotels let the guy specifically request a room next to Andrews:

On Friday, the FBI arrested 48-year-old Michael David Barrett and charged him with secretly taping ESPN sports reporter Erin Andrews in the nude and posting the videos on the Internet. Andrews’ attorneys, Marshall B. Grossman and Daniel Alberstone of Bingham McCutchen, quickly issued a statement praising the FBI and the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles for making the arrest — and revealing that the Bingham attorneys and the private investigation firm Kroll Inc. played key roles in the investigation.

But Grossman was not so kind toward the hotel where the filming took place. He criticized management at the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt University for booking Barrett into the room adjacent to Andrews and questioned the hotel’s attention to privacy and security. “One can’t pass this off to simple ignorance,” Grossman said.

Indeed, judging by the FBI’s affidavit, the actions by the Marriott are inexcusable. The affidavit says that Barrett filmed all but one of the videos at the Marriott, with the other filmed at the Ramada Conference Center in Milwaukee. What is most shocking is how Barrett was able to secure his room in the Marriott next to Andrews: He simply asked. The hotel’s reservations computer showed his request as, “GST RQST TO RM NXT TO [Andrews].” To make matters worse, both rooms were situated in an alcove off the main hallway. That made it easier for Barrett to hack the peephole in a manner that allowed him to film inside.

In Milwaukee, Barrett allegedly called 14 hotels to find out where Andrews would be staying. When he found out she would be at the Radisson, he booked a room and hacked the peephole of Andrews’ room in the same way he had done at the Marriott.

All of this adds up to a potential lawsuit, suggests John A. Day at the blog Day on Torts. Start with the question of how Barrett was able to identify Andrews’ room, when “most hotels will not give anyone, even an alleged spouse, the room number of a guest.” Add in the questions of how Barrett was able to secure a room right next door to Andrews and how he was able to modify the peephole without anyone noticing, and “one would think alarms would have been sounding at Marriott,” Day says.

Hotels have a responsibility to make their premises reasonably safe for their guests. This includes the responsibility to exercise reasonable care to protect the privacy of their guests. As more of the facts are released for public consumption, we will learn if Marriott did what Erin Andrews had a right to expect.

Based on news reports, Marriott’s only response so far has been a prepared statement that said, “The security and privacy of our guests is a priority.” I suspect Andrews’ attorneys at Bingham McCutchen will be looking for something more than that out of these two hotels.

Down with Crabtree! Down with the draft?

crabtreesIs Michael Crabtree ready to sign? Deion Sanders, who is inexplicably one of  Crabtree’s advisors, seems to think so. I don’t really see what other options he has left: The 49ers can’t trade him now, and if he waits through the fall deadline without signing to re-enter the draft next spring, he will sign for significantly less than he is being offered now (not to mention the time value of money, etc).  As has been repeatedly mentioned, it was probably quite stupid for Crabtree to hold out this long.

That said, from a labor perspective at least, I continue to find the draft and the associated hoopla relatively unfair for players. There is no question that Crabtree could have commanded more money from another team (Jets?). Yet he is effectively owned by the 49ers for at least a year, presenting him a hobson’s choice: sign for whatever the 49ers are willing to offer, or sit out an entire year for less money, take a PR beating, and possibly jeopardize your whole career. Imagine if doctors were drafted out of medical school. “Sorry Mr. Number One at Harvard Med, but you’ve been selected by a fine hospital in Topeka, Kansas! They are offering a nice salary. Should you not want to go there, you will have to sit out from practicing medicine for a year, and then maybe try your luck next year. Sorry!” Or the same for the world’s bankers, librarians, pharmacists, and coaches, where an employer would get the opportunity to own that person’s rights for a year, offering the choice between a take-it-or-leave-it offer and a year of unemployment.

I know what many of the responses will be: But they offered him millions of dollars! He should sign! Well, maybe under the current system he should have. But the United States fancies itself a meritocracy, and players, like all other professions, should be entitled to bargain for the most someone is willing to pay for them. If Crabtree thinks he should be paid more than Darius-Heyward Bey, he should be able to negotiate for that from various competitors. Of course the 49ers weren’t going to up their offer: in five years, there will still be the 49ers, but this is Crabtree’s shot to get paid (imagine if he got injured). Indeed, they feared the Jets were coming in to promise more than they were and they filed tampering charges! Again, imagine if you were deciding whether to take a new job, and a different employer offered you a more lucrative offer and your current employer — or not-even, just a company that “owns” your rights for a year based on some kind of ceremonial “draft” — could prevent anyone from offering you anything.

So what are the alternatives? Increasingly I’d like to see some kind of auction system installed instead of the draft. (Fat chance, now that the draft is such a media event.) It’d involve the same elements of scouting, and the like, except that the team could allocate the money however they feel. The salary cap would still exist, so Jerry Jones couldn’t just outbid everyone mercilessly. Moreover, it would give real choices to teams to make decisions based on whether they want a big star player like Crabtree and want to pay him a lot, or want to go after a lot of mid-level guys, or some mixture. A similar system would just be a Madden franchise-mode-esque series of free agency “rounds,” where you’d have periods of free agency activity though maybe limits on how many guys a team could sign during that time — i.e. the Cowboys couldn’t announce 15 rookie signings on day one and be done with it. You’d still get your TV drama, but the players could shop around a bit more, as could teams. Indeed, I’d be more excited to see who the shrewd dealmakers were in this system than the current hodge-podge draft system.

I think these would work because we’re approaching this kind of thing anyway. One, the draft is a relic of a time before free agency — the majority of guys on NFL rosters were not drafted by that team, so any effect on the league and team composition would be less than people think. Second, in ye olden days the draft went on more than twice as long as it does now. In other words, the league has been moving to limit the anachronistic draft more and more, and I can only hope it will finish the job. Though I’m not holding my breath.

In sum: I think Crabtree has severely mishandled himself by holding out this long. But that analysis only applies within the current draft-framework. It’s a long shot, but I think the NFL would be well-advised to replace the draft with some kind of auction or free-agency-by-round system. It’d be significantly better for the players, and at least equal  for the teams.  (And in the long run I think it’d be better for teams to, beyond the initial shock). In other words, eliminating the draft would be the pareto optimal thing to do. It’s too late for Crabtree, but maybe his saga can get people thinking about this stuff.

Is the NFL a “single entity” (and therefore exempt from many anti-trust laws)? A round-up

That’s the question presented in the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case. And while there has already been some hyperbole (ESPN: “Antitrust case could be Armageddon”), the case does present some real and interesting questions, including ones beyond the narrow issue of the NFL and other sports leagues — I know, it’s hard to imagine anything beyond sports leagues. Here is how the full issue was summarized by David Savage in the ABA Journal:

[I]n American Needle v. National Football League, the justices will decide a legal question that has long hung over pro sports. Are their leagues a “single entity” and, therefore, immune from antitrust laws, or can these independently owned teams be sued for conspiring to restrain trade? A suburban Chicago maker of stocking hats and caps, American Needle sued in 2004 after it was shut out from using NFL logos. The league had made an exclusive deal with Reebok. The suit was thrown out by the 7th Circuit, but the justices agreed to decide whether pro leagues are shielded from antitrust charges.

Upon reading this you probably have an impulsive answer right away. Either, “Hey, of course the NFL is just one entity!” Or “Hey, of course there are thirty-two teams!” But you have to understand the weird nature of sports leagues as a branch of joint ventures, and the stakes — that a ruling of them as a joint entity makes them immune from anti-trust action, even with respect to other possible competitors.

Without getting too complicated, baseball has long enjoyed a unique place in anti-trust law — it doesn’t apply to it. Other leagues have come close, but haven’t been so lucky. There’s really no reason for these leagues to have such unique status, but baseball does and football wants it, anyway it can get it. The best they can muster from a policy perspective is that “hey, we’re the NFL, we’re important right!” And, within the cloistered halls of the NFL (not to mention ESPN, and the like) the world begins and ends insofar as it affects The Game, be it terrorism or the stockmarket or whatever else.

But legal battles in real courts deal with larger themes. Specifically, the government, in the form of the Solicitor General’s office, was asked to chime in on this case. This put them in an awkward position because (a) American Needle has a very weak case, even apart from this “single-entity theory,” and (b) the government really only cares about this case insofar as it affects other joint-ventures beyond sports leagues. As Morrison & Foerster partner Deanne Maynard noted at a recent Supreme Court panel, if the Court rules in favor of the NFL, this case could have wide-ranging implications beyond just sports organizations.

“I think it could affect any kind of joint business venture,” she said. “It could mean that in doing these (joint) activities, the companies are a single entity.”

Moreover, here’s some excellent commentary and background from Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSBlog (written while the Justices were still considering whether to hear the case): (more…)

Mumme Pollin’

Always a sucker for any reference to one of the weirdest, most entertaining coaches of the last decade, I’m participating in the Mumme Poll, a creative way of ranking college teams. But the best part about the poll is that you, learned reader, get to participate as well. How does it work? The website explains:

This is accomplished by means of conducting the voting in two very different ways from other football polls:

  1. The first vote does not take place until after the games of Week Six have been played.  Voters are not asked to evaluate teams based on preseason expectations and are not expected to use those as a baseline from which to rank teams for the rest of the year.
  2. Rather than being required to rank twenty five D-1 teams in order of preference, Mumme Poll voters submit ballots of the top twelve teams in the country, without ranking (other than to designate the top five of those twelve, for use as a tiebreaker).  The poll rankings are then compiled by means of approval voting; that is, the teams are ranked in the order of the total number of times they appear on voters’ ballots.

The ballots won’t really start in earnest until the end of week six, but register now.

Of Malzahn and Miami, a look backward and forward

A couple of stuff from me from around the web:

Goaltending for football?

fbgoalI received an intriguing email from reader Sean Piccola:

I’m an ASU fan who was subjected to [Georgia's] AJ Green’s block of ASU’s potential game winning field goal last Saturday. Given Green’s insane height and athleticism, it got me thinking . . . if Green is 6’4 with a vertical of 30″ (or Julio Jones who is also 6’4 and has a 38.6″ vertical), why not put him under the goal post on long field goals and have him attempt to block it at the end of the kick, rather than the beginning?

Do you ever recall a time when a defensive team, when facing a long field goal, has ever placed an athlete of that caliber at the back of the end zone, in front of the goal posts, and instructed him to try to block the
kick (not return it a’la Antonio Cromartie) — it seems that numerous FGs around 50 yards just make it over the crossbar, and if nothing else it would get in the kicker’s head.

I looked through the NCAA rule book online and it didn’t seem to contain anything that would prohibit the practice; a field goal is just another “scrimmage kick.” Obviously, this tactic would not have frequent
application, but it could prove huge at critical points in a game.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this done in a game. And I have seen a number of long distance, late-in-the-half type kicks that just barely scooted over the crossbars. Then again, this might be an incredibly difficult thing to do in a game, and also difficult to even simulate in practice. (Whereas a kick return of a short field goal is more or less just like returning a kickoff or punt.)

But I don’t know, maybe it’d be worth a shot? The guy could either return it if it was short, or block it if he could. Any thoughts?

Update: Mystery solved: doing this would be illegal, except in the rare instance where the defender catches the ball cleanly. Thanks to commenter Chris (not me) for pointing this out. The rules can be found on pages 243-44 here. The applicable rules are as follows. Note the penalties range from a safety against the defending team (or upholding of a touchdown if the kicking team recovers it in the end zone) to simply a first down and yardage for the offense. Probably too risky. Note also these rules don’t seem to apply if the kick falls short of the crossbars without interference — i.e. the Antonio Cromartie stuff. (more…)