Hillenmeyer: Something wrong with the way we teach, practice and play this game

Submitted by StephenRKass on May 2nd, 2012 at 6:30 PM

In the current internet Chicago Tribune, there is a brief article quoting former Bear's lineback Hunter Hillenmeyer.

Link: http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/football/bears/chi-hillenmeyer-rash-of-suicides-an-indictment-of-nfl-20120502,0,7928806.story

This is in response to the tragic news of Junior Seau's suicide this afternoon.

Obviously, this is all over the internet, and there is another post regarding Seau a scant six below this. However, in light of the debate over the future of college football, and the increasingly alarming news about concussions, I thought this link was worth posting this for the money quote:

At what point do enough tragic isolated outcomes show there is something systematically wrong with the way we teach, practice and play this game.

None of us know what the future holds, but change is coming. Hillenmeyer himself was cut by the Bears a year ago after his career was ended by concussions. The suicides, the cumulative head trauma, the violence, the Saints take out pay outs, the lack of compensation (beyond scholarships) for high BCS teams, are all swirling together, and the critical mass for radical change appears to be on the horizon.

I watch this closely, because my son is still playing ball, and I don't want to see him hurt in a way that permanently incapacitates him. Do I want anyone permanently injured as a side affect of my own viewing enjoyment?



May 2nd, 2012 at 9:31 PM ^


The tragic and untimely death  of Junior Seau and this article by Hunter HIllenmeyer (along  with his own ongoing grievance) made me curious about what the NFL CBA provides for these players in this situation. Pages 193 through 203 cover Injury Grievance and Injury Protection.

Section 11(b)  of  the Injury Grievance article:

"Any player who does not qualify for group health insurance coverage in a given Plan Year under the NFL Player Insurance Plan as a result of being terminated while physically unable to perform and who receives payment for at least one (1) regular or post-season game via an injury grievance award or injury settlement for that Plan Year shall receive a payment in an amount determined by multiplying the number of months in that Plan Year for which he would have been eligible for coverage had he qualified for group health insurance coverage in that Plan Year by the premium the Player Insurance Plan charged for COBRA coverage during that period."

Even under the other articles, this doesn't seem to me to add up to what the care for some of these players is becoming, which is more than a little disappointing. Granted, the league definitely acknowledges the concussion problem and the many long-term physical problems which can result from a football career, but the agreement doesn't seem to provide very liberal avenues for players to recover expenses and get the compensation that they would seek in these case. This clause, to me, leaves open the possibility of a player getting zilch, which seems to me a disservice. However, if you go all the way to Article 65, page 247, you find the Neuro-Cognitive Benefit, with the following:

"Players shall be eligible for benefits under this Article where they  (i) satisfy the standards set forth in Section 1; (ii) are under the age of 55; (iii) are vested under the Retirement Plan due to their Credited Seasons; (iv) have at least one Credited Season after 1994; and (v) have executed a release of claims and covenants not to sue in a form agreed upon by the parties to this Agreement."

So, basically, you cannot be currently suing the league to get this benefit, and you have to be a "vested" player, which is five years of service (qualifying for a "year of service" is laid out elsewhere). It also says later that the benefit will be paid for no more than 180 months from the first day of the month of the qualifying exam. Another interesting highlight to me was that, if I read this right, the player will be reimbursed for care provided the expenses are under  $10,000 per Section 213(d) of the IRS code. Further, the NFL Plan, assuming you still qualify for it per numerous articles of the contract, is the secondary payor for this benefit. 

What troubles me is that this is the agreement they ratified, and it seems to undercut the issue in some very important regards. I think part of the deal needs to be justly compensating players who assume the risk and are injured as a result. We cannot be so heartless as to say it was their choice and leave them in the dust - no agreement should do this, and no management group for any team should attempt it. The issues need to be recognized and players should be given access to proper care, in my opinion. 



May 2nd, 2012 at 7:49 PM ^

The NFL is going to have address this issue in a real, and meaningful way. In doing so, they will probably have to alter football as we know it forever.

They're probably going to have to consider things like:

-Limiting the number of years someone is allowed to play professional football.

-Forcible retirement for someone who has had too many concussions, or repeated concussions over a short length of time.

-Changing, removing, and/or improving equipment.

-Altering what is acceptable in terms of tackling, and establishing a zero tolerance policy for breaking the rules that is enforced by a large fine and suspention (Doesn't matter if the hit is borderline, or a monsterous Sean Taylor type of hit. The fine and suspension will be the same so guys know exactly what they are dealing with).

-Attempting to change the culture of football via coaching seminars, player seminars, and education at all levels of football.

-Huge fines for hands to the head, with a particular emphasis on the offensive and defensive lines.

-Widening the field.

If the NFL is serious about this issue they're going to have to get creative, and put all of the sacred cows up for slaughter. It might be a difficult transition at first but eventually fans, players, and coaches will get used to it.


May 2nd, 2012 at 8:25 PM ^

A few years ago, when headhunting suddenly became a penalty, I was appalled.  That's just football.  I played safety in h.s. and have always been a fan of hitting and great defense, and those killshots with helmets were just the epitome of a violent game played by modern gladiators.  Grrrrr, Roger Goodell!  Why don't we just make it flag football!  Hiss!

Yeah, I'm over that.  The increasing science of concussions, and long-term effect thereof, has completely swung me the past couple of years.  I had one concussion in H.S. and at least two playing collegiate rugby, and never gave it much thought until the past couple years.  Now, it scares the hell out of me.

A previous poster quoted Mike Ditka's suggestion: remove facemasks.  I'd go one further.  Remove helmets altogether.  Or restrict to just the old fashioned leather kind (at least that way we'd still have winged helmets).  I'd get rid of shoulder pads, too.  If that reduces it to rugby in a way, that's fine-- despite the two head injuries I had playing rugby, I think it's a much safer sport because of the way people tackle.  Injuries are frequent, but they're usually the kind that heal.  I honestly think my concussions in rugby were because I or the other guy tried tackling in a football way, and not a rugby way.  

It might take a generation to get used to it, and the game would be forever different, but I'd support it.  The NFL, in particular, results in players with a lower quality, and shorter, life.  Full stop.  I'm converted.  Change the game.  Sad for the sport I grew up loving, but think it's become necessary.



May 2nd, 2012 at 8:34 PM ^

but I guess I'll mention it here too--despite the common opinion that it's safer in this regard, current research indicates that there are slightly more concussions in rugby than in football, and also that concussion frequency was similar in various countries (which would address your thought that it was your football training that caused your rugby concussions). I think we should look into that carefully before we try to turn football into rugby to make it safer.


May 2nd, 2012 at 8:47 PM ^

based only on my experience of the two games.  Taken as true, though, I would still support some kind of scale-back on helmet technology to discourage head-first tackling and "launching".  Maybe facemask-less is really the best way to go (with the best mouthguards money can buy)?  Don't get me wrong, rugby is brutal, but the collisions seem much more controlled.  Perhaps many of the concussions are coming from the scrums and not the loose play; if so, that would account for the rates and wouldn't be an issue in football if we required arm-push blocking instead of drive blocking.


May 2nd, 2012 at 9:14 PM ^

I wondered about that too. A lot of work on exactly when the trauma is happening seems to be needed in both sports. It's linemen, not players in space, that seem to be suffering the most in football--at least they're the group with the shortest lifespans. Maybe it's the repeated head contact in the scrum or at the LOS that's the biggest problem and it's the rules on blocking/fending off blocks that most need addressing?

I'm torn about face masks--will more players duck their heads if there's no mask protecting them when they go in head up? I don't want a rash of spinal injuries coming because we tried to do something about the concussions.


May 3rd, 2012 at 1:55 AM ^

We can't just keep using this as a meaningful statistic and making conclusions about which players are most impacted by NFL hits.  Guys who weigh 300+ pounds have a much shorter life expectancy than people who weigh a great deal less.  That is always going to be the case inside or outside of the NFL. 

For the same reason that we shouldn't be quick to adopt rugby helmets/rules (or MMA style fighting, for that matter) just because an untested theory seems intuitive, we shouldn't leap to conclusions about the safety of pro football (much less lower levels of football) based on an emotional reaction to one case (or a small number of them) that hasn't even begun to be investigated yet.


May 2nd, 2012 at 8:55 PM ^

I think the main problems are ignorance, the equipment making you feel invulnerable, and the culture of the game.

I had one major concussion in my sports career and it came playing high school football.

I played safety, and the opposing team threw a little swing pass to the running back. I came in with a full head of steam and just crushed the guy in the backfield. Ended up breaking four of his ribs. 

I don't remember that hit or the rest of the game, but I didn't miss a play, ended up with a boatload of tackles and returned an INT for a TD. Instead of calling me an idiot and punishing me for staying out there, I was given the game ball, lauded for my toughness, and held up as an example for the way all the other kids on the team ought to play the game.

I didn't miss a single game that season, not the subsequent week, or any practices. When I imagine that type of thing happening to a person over a 4 year college career, and a 15 year NFL career, the consequences become all too clear.

Section 1

May 2nd, 2012 at 7:58 PM ^

It would be the end of our guys jumping to the NFL as juniors.  It would end the mindset of trying to get to the NFL to cash in.  We'd have real student-athletes playing college football, with no eye toward "the next level."  I laugh, just thinking about it.  It would be fantastic!  lol. 

STW P. Brabbs

May 2nd, 2012 at 8:15 PM ^

I appreciate the concern overall.  But, uh:

The suicides, the cumulative head trauma, the violence, the Saints take out pay outs, the lack of compensation (beyond scholarships) for high BCS teams [...]

One of these thing is not like the other, as far as I can see.



May 2nd, 2012 at 9:14 PM ^

I'm sorry but the players in the NFL CHOOSE to play football.  They could easily turn down millions to join the everyday workforce like you or I.  Maybe stay in college and get a degree, but no.  They choose to leave college early and chase the money knowing full well that these outcomes are possible if not probable.  No they shouldn't change the game, if these players want a healthier life, don't play football.  Become doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc... like the rest of us and die naturally at an older (hopefully) age.  It's like riding a rollercoaster at Cedar Point.  You do so at your own risk.  If you personally decide that the risk is not worth the reward, don't do it.  If you decide that it is and the car gets flung from the track and you die, you made the choice fully knowing of the possible outcome. 


Waters Demos

May 2nd, 2012 at 9:26 PM ^

Blowhards who never played and who have never experienced the kind of violence the game involves will continue to insist on it as a matter of principle, which will serve as a thinly veiled justification for their viewing enjoyment and manufactured "toughness."

Those who did play will ignore good fortune in favor of their own toughness. 

Thoughtful people will question whether it's worth it (e.g., this thread), but the many will ultimately sway the market in favor of violence.  And the thoughtful few can either go along for the ride or conscientously object. 


May 2nd, 2012 at 10:23 PM ^

but the last time football went through this it was the thoughtful few who carried the day. Schools decided to reform the game and among other things we wound up with the forward pass. I don't think any of us would give that up in exchange for a little extra violence.

Of course it took a dozen or so deaths to reach the point where they decided to opt for the creative solution; I hope we get there a little quicker this time.


May 2nd, 2012 at 9:28 PM ^

There's nothing wrong with the way we teach, practice, or play the game.  It is the nature of the game itself.  Players years ago may not have known the risk of traumatic brain injuries but from here on out we are all on notice: football is a violent sport.  You risk head injury if you play. 

Red is Blue

May 3rd, 2012 at 9:00 AM ^

I think it is a combination of both how the game is taught/practiced/played and the nature of the game itself.  Certainly, the game is a violent sport.  However, having watched a fair amount of youth football there a certain teams/players that lead with their helmets.  Since it tends to be the same teams year after year, my conclusion on filmsy evidence is that those teams are being taught that way.  Recognizing that by "teaching" I don't necessarily mean purposely showing the kids how to lead with their helmets, but either praising such activity or at least ignoring it and not correcting the behaviour.


May 2nd, 2012 at 9:36 PM ^

There is major injury risk in every sport. I remember reading are report a few years back that showed heading a soccer ball over long periods of time could give you brain damage. Does that mean you shouldn't play soccer? No. It just means that if your going to expose your body to long term wear and tear expect some long term problems.

The easiest way to protect players is to limit the years they can play. Is it silly to say that if you shouldn't be able to play pro more than 8 years due to higher risk of injury?


May 2nd, 2012 at 9:41 PM ^

I played full contract football from 4th grade through highschool. I was never taught to lead with my head or hurt anyone. I never had a concussion, and never gave one either. Maybe the game needs to be taught differently, but that's it. As long as parents and players understand the risks, then they should be allowed to play without all this talk of radical changes and lawsuits. This is supposed to be a free country, if I understand the risks then I should be allowed to play. People ought to care more about personal freedom than trying to regulate every aspect of one's life becuase "it's for your own good." Otherwise we might as well strap ourselves to our bed, never leave the house, and have some expert government offiical there to look after us and wipe our asses for us. You can go on and on till forever coming up with new ideas on what you think is best for everybody, it will never stop.


May 2nd, 2012 at 10:49 PM ^

How is it not. If I want to play a sport that doesn't impact your life at all, and yet you want to tell me how I'm supposed to play the game, how is it not a personal freedom issue. This isn't just with football, it's with everything now in our nanny state. It's why we have warning labels on toasters telling you not to put forks in them or throw them in the tub while you're bathing. It absolutely is about personal freedom.


May 3rd, 2012 at 12:19 AM ^

I never said anything about football not having rules, I disagree with people outside the sport fundamentally trying to change the game (by increasing the touchbacks for example in order to get rid of the play). I would have no problem if it were left only up to the players to decide how the game should be played... I suppose there isn't a point trying to argue logic with someone who supports castro.


May 3rd, 2012 at 1:15 AM ^

The same NFL players who created and funded a bounty system, that encouraged and rewarded the injuring of other players?

Also, just so we're clear, you've abandoned the personal freedom argument, and have moved on to "let the players collectively decide how the game should be played," not individuals each deciding how they will play the game?

To further add, I assume you are aware of the inherent problems with self regulation?



May 2nd, 2012 at 9:41 PM ^

One thing that really bothers me is that players in college and the nfl aren't required to wear the safest helmets. A few days ago a study at VT showed that the Riddell Revo speed and Riddell revo 360 are the best helmets to protect against concussion. Why are guys like Drew Brees, Tony Romo and even our very own Charles Woodson wearing the same Schutt helmets they wore in high school?



May 2nd, 2012 at 9:47 PM ^

I don't understand the argument against Hillenmyer's statement.

How can anyone, possibly, be against efforts to make the game safer? If taking away the pads made it safer (maybe?) how could you possibly be against that? It's still your game. These guys still get to play. Why be against changing the game to minimize the risk?


May 3rd, 2012 at 12:25 AM ^

Because the risk and the contact is what makes it worth doing. Have you ever played? If you have, you'd understand. If its all about safety then you could get rid of or change an infinite amount of things.  If you can make the game safe and not change it then great.


May 2nd, 2012 at 10:04 PM ^

The thing with concussions is that once you have one youre more likely to get another one. Especially if you don't take the time to heal. Why not make guys who get really bad concussions, like Colt McCoys last year sit for a minimum 4 weeks? They do it in high school.


May 2nd, 2012 at 10:31 PM ^

Browns fan here.  I watched the game where Colt got concussed and went back in two plays later and it was SO clear he had no clue where he was or what he was doing that anybody on the Browns sideline who says otherwise is a liar.  The problem is the coaches arent paid to look after players safety - they are paid to win - and if a player's safety is jepordized to achieve their goal so be it.

Sad but true.


May 2nd, 2012 at 11:56 PM ^

Out here on the west coast there been a big movement to get rid of the weighted leagues. The reason being that you get more injuries when a 10 year old plays with a 12 year old than you do when two 10 year olds weighing 70 and 110lbs.


May 3rd, 2012 at 12:29 AM ^

Soccer is also having concussion issues, as people do not wear any head protection and fly at each other from ages 5 and up.  The treatment of concussions has changed greatly in the last few years at all levels on all sports in USA.  That is a good thing, and needs to continue.

So, doing without helmets may not be the answer either.  The NFL, whether we like it or not, sets the standard for how people will coach and behave at the lower levels simply because of the amount of publicity and influence the NFL as a whole will have.  Whether it is how to tackle, how to play defense, what helmets are safest, what rules are to be enforced, the people who hold the most resources and most money at the top will most likely be the driving force.  All 3 of the leagues constituencies have this responsibility, the players, the coaches, and the owners.  How they discharge this responsibility will determine the game's future.

That was why I understood and supported the bounty stuff, regardless of what the mentality or blind eye turned previously was, as it signaled a change in how the game was to be coached and administered at the highest level which should flow downward in the ranks.


May 3rd, 2012 at 1:29 AM ^

I have had 6 concussions and I have some memory issues and suffer from headaches.  Two of those concussions were due to two car accidents, 3 of them occurred during soccer, and 1 during tennis.  I was offered a partial scholorship to play soccer at a DII school but turned it down because I thought 6 concussions was way too much. 

Red is Blue

May 3rd, 2012 at 9:12 AM ^

Sounds like a good decision.  Makes you wonder how many kids with similar concussion history would play on either because they feel infallible or because this could be their "ticket" (can't afford college otherwise, believe they have the ability to one day turn pro...)

As an aside, and I'm not making light of your circumstances, but I am curious as to how you got concussed playing tennis?


May 3rd, 2012 at 10:18 AM ^

This is also some power ful stuff. 

"The method of Seau’s reported suicide—a gunshot to the chest—is also freighted with symbolism. Last year, ex-Bears safety Dave Duerson, like Seau, shot himself in the chest. In Duerson’s case, this was an intentional choice, designed to preserve his brain for study—his suicide note included a request that his family “see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” A subsequent autopsy confirmed the diagnosis that Duerson suspected: Hisbrain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease that researchers believe is caused by repeated head injuries and is associated with depression and dementia."