NFL Network’s unit on player health and safety-Newsworthy?

by Amy Goodwin on October 15, 2012

How newsworthy is the NFL Network’s newly launched player health and safety unit? Was this unit formed to appease our pain over the loss of the beloved Junior Seau or other NFL suicides brought to our attention in the media – O.J. Murdock, Kenny McKinley, Ray Easterly and Dave Duerson? When former NFL players commit suicide there is a surge of questioning about concussions and head trauma. Maybe this is the NFL Network’s answer to the surge.

Skeptics may say the NFL Network is only making a gesture, much like the tobacco industry’s anti-smoking adds “Tobacco is Wacko.” Just as those adds were cleverly designed to increase smoking in young adults, this segment of programming may only build an increased interest and fan base to the immensely popular NFL. However, based upon their recent hire of Andrea Kremer, I’d say the “gesture” argument is hard to argue at this point.

In hiring Kremer, the NFL Network is demonstrating an out of the blocks commitment to honest reporting and hopeful improvement of player health and safety in the NFL. Andrea, with 30 years covering sports and a veteran NFL reporter, is known for asking tough questions. Having covered stories on sexual assault, doping and domestic abuse, she is tenacious when it comes to research and interviewing. She can write, edit, produce and weave the long form narrative.

Her first interview with Oakland Raiders wide receiver, Darrius Heyward-Bey, who suffered a concussion in game three of the season, did not disappoint. Rich Eisen introduced the segment asking, “What was the physical and mental impact of the concussion on this young player?” Andrea drew from Heyward-Bey a telling response.

Their face-to-face interview interspersed mostly with repeated shots from various camera angles of the hit that caused the concussion, left me squeamish. As the interview progressed her questions grew more probing and revealing. The final minute of the five minute segment was almost too hard to watch.

Andrea: When you watch it (the hit) is there a part of you that winces?
Darrius:(answers immediately) Not really. I try not to because I don’t want it to affect me on the field.
Andrea: When you walk out of this room and you move on to the next part of your day will you think twice about anything we talked about?
Darrius:(pause, pause bites his lip)No. I have to approach it that way. If I start second guessing like what happened when I got hit. Or what might happen again. I don’t think I would be able to play football the way I want to.
Andrea:So you don’t ever think about the future?
Darrius:(pause) No. It’s all about the next game. You know when I’m fifty, I’ll worry about that when I’m there.
Andrea: Have you asked any questions about what’s going on or what happened to your brain?
Darrius(answers immediately) Not really.
Andrea: This is your brain.
Darrius: (answers immediately) If somebody told me I couldn’t play football or that my concussion was too severe, maybe I would feel different but that’s not the case.
Andrea: Have the doctors told you or have you inquired if you are more predisposed to concussions now that you have had a pretty serious one?
Darrius: (pause pause long pause) Maybe….but I know how I feel now, going back to the “f” word, “fear,” I don’t want to have fear going into the game. If I do, maybe I need to find a different line of work.

“Save your money for the finish, kid,” a filmmaker once told me about something I had written. In other words, the ending is what’s really important in a piece. It is what people remember. I remember the look on Darrius’s face after saying, “find a different line of work.” He wore a look of strain; the strain of a man in an awful bind. Either deny the possible gravity of his current situation or allow it to seep into his awareness and play football, with the caution and tentativeness which could render him useless on the field. It is not an enviable position, but one for which we all have sympathy.

And now for the hard work of Andrea Kremer. There are many questions that remain unanswered when thinking about the direction she will take this unit. How will she get people to talk to her? Will they be honest? Will the editors and producers of the show continue to allow us to see lip biting or hear awkward pauses and silence? Will be allowed to continue to read between the lines? In Andrea Kremer’s hands, the stories stand to get deeper, the narrative more complex. She has the potential to weave a hard hitting, truthful picture. Is the NFL Network ready? And are we, the spectators, ready? Do we really care about what happens to NFL players like Darrius Heyward-Bey or will we shrug it off? We need the entertainment. Will we say to ourselves, “Hey, it’s all in the game?”


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