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Terry Pluto: talks about a new focus on old players
The physical toll from a career in football can last a lifetime, and so can the medical bills

Tim Rudell
Terry Pluto
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The NFL is about to kick off its ninety-first season -- and its last before the labor contract with its players expires. WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto talks with Tim Rudell about how the right kind of new agreement could improve the long-term futures of both pro football, and its players
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Canton Ohio is bustling with Hall of Fame week preparations -- a sure sign football is upon us. But, as the celebration of America’s favorite and roughest major sport nears, a new report underscoresthe game effects on the health of those who play it.

On July 23rd, the NFL and the players union released a study of helmets and head injuries. It says current pro gear meets government standards, but can’t fully protect against concussions. In decades of covering sports, Terry Pluto has gotten to know many a pro football player and gotten their takes on the physical price they paid to be in the game…
Terry Pluto: I’ve talked to (former Cleveland quarterback) Bernie Kosar a couple times about this issue. He stutters a little bit and things, and it’s a direct result of concussions. He doesn’t even know how many concussions he had. And this is not back in the era of no face mask, head slapping and leather helmets. This is in the ’ 80s and early ‘90s. He said that it’s an issue for just about every player. But because it’s neurological, it’s hard to tell when it impacts you and how. Just about every player has that same story in one way or another. It also goes down to the amateur ranks. You know, mama will tell you, you’re not made to bang your head against the wall or against the 300 pounder in front of you.
Tim Rudell: Fans and the public in general don’t seem to have a clear appreciation for how serious this can be.
TP: One of the things I remember (former Browns quarterback)  Tim Couch was criticized for when he spoke after the game where a couple of the Baltimore Ravens put him down and gave him a concussion. In the middle of this, he began to cry. A doctor wrote me an email that that is a common result after a concussion – involuntary crying. You don’t even know where it comes from.
I got emails from these guys saying, ‘Well, you know, I played at Rootstown High, and I got dinged a few times. You don’t see me crying.’ Yeah, but you didn’t get hit by the Baltimore Ravens line either.  (And)  maybe you should have looked at this a little more seriously, because you don’t know what you took for ‘the ding in the head.’
The other thing you hear is ‘Oh, he’s just got a stinger in his neck.’ Think about that for a while.
TR: The idea of the unknown, especially unknown down-the-road effects can be scary. How do NFL players deal with this?
TP: In the NFL you get to be a former player real fast. The average career is about 3-4 years. And frankly, most these guys don’t make the kind of money…the average NBA salary is like $4.5 million. I don’t even think the average NFL salary is at $2 million. That money goes quickly. That time goes fast. …
Reggie Rucker, a former Brown, is very involved in that movement trying to push the union and the owners to really look more at what they’re paying their former players…pensions and things. These guys all need knee replacements.
TR: Some of it goes back to what you were saying earlier in the conversation about the nature of the game. Football is violent.
TP: They always say: In football you’re one play away from getting into the game. But you’re also one play from getting out of the game for the rest of your career. So they need to look at those situations too. Look at it seriously.
TR: The league and the players are going into negotiations hoping not to have a work stoppage for the 2011 season. I know from some of your past commentary and conversations that a big issue is possibly a rookie salary cap. Is there room here for maneuvering  involving …something that has to do with pensions and long-term health?
TP: The NFL generally has a very good system going, because it has a real salary cap in a league where for example, two teams played in the Super Bowl -- Indianapolis and New Orleans -- who could not even support a baseball team. They’re not big enough, but they are able to do it in the NFL. The problem that the NFL has …to address is they have this crazy system where rookies come in and get more money than just about everyone else. They need to get a rookie salary cap much like the NBA has. … The average guy in the NFL doesn’t like the fact that a Braylon Edwards or a Kellen Winslow can walk through the door of the Browns and suddenly become the highest paid player. But the union would always say, ‘Well, at least some guy is getting paid.’ … They’ll fight back and forth on that, but they think what they really should have is a way to put more money into the fund for their former players. And if the union says, ‘Why are we putting ourselves on the line for some 20-year-old instead of taking care of our 30 and 40 and 50-year-olds,’ they’ll make a deal. But if people get bone-headed, then you’re going to sit there. And you’re going to take the one game (pro football) that is the biggest revenue producer going and you’re going to mess it up.
The 2010 NFL season gets underway with the Cincinnati Bengals playing the Dallas Cowboys in the Hall of Fame game at Fawcett stadium in Canton on August 8.
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