Transcript: NFL EVP Jeff Pash, NFL VP of Player Engagement Troy Vincent & Falcons President & CEO & Competition Committee Chairman Rich McKay at 2012 Spring League Meeting

Pash: Good morning.  Thank you.  We opened with a player health and safety presentation that included Dr. John York, the chairman of our owner committee on that subject; myself; Dr. David Satcher, the former surgeon general of the United States; and Dr. (Elliot) Pellman, our medical director.  We reviewed a series of subjects.

The first thing we talked about was the report released by the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health earlier this month on former players and their mortality rates and causes of death.  We went through the key findings in the report concerning not just overall mortality rates but heart disease, cancer and suicide and identified the one or two areas where they had higher rates, where they are going to be doing some additional studies and the interesting, provocative finding concerning a few players who had cardiomyopathy.  That is something that our cardiovascular health committee is talking about, as well.  We talked about some other information that had developed over the year on that subject, including when we rolled out a couple years ago the long-term care insurance program for retired players, where the owners provided this as a benefit to our retired population.  We had to do some analysis for the insurance companies in order to qualify for the coverage.  They had done some review not on as large a sample or not over as long a period of time but had found rather similar information.

The second thing we talked about was a review of some of the key medical items that our different committees are working on.  I touched on some of the work of our Head, Neck & Spine Committee, including the testing that they are doing on various helmets to try to identify ways of improving the functionality of helmets and getting better research there; material we have made available to the manufacturers at their request to assist in their efforts; and a nice little development which I thought the owners would be interested in: the chief medical officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, Dr. (Cindy) Chang gave to all of the team physicians for the various US Olympic teams to take the CDC online course on concussions, which was a course we funded and helped develop and the CDC put their expertise to work on it.  That was rolled out about a year ago.  It has been taken by a great many coaches, trainers and doctors who are involved in youth programs, but the Olympic Committee thought it was of such quality that the first assignment – literally, that is how the e-mail reads – is to take the CDC course.  I thought the owners would be interested in that, as well.

We reviewed the work of our foot and ankle subcommittee and what the researchers at the University of Virginia are doing to address issues of turf toe, ankle sprain, certain kinds of fractures that players have had in the lower extremities; how we can better work with shoe manufacturers and turf manufactures to integrate that knowledge; and try to develop standards for turn and maintenance of turf and shoe manufacturers that will provide better protection for players.  

Finally, in a discussion that Troy Vincent was intimately involved in, we talked about ways of developing what I guess I would call an ‘intervention program’ to make sure we have more and more effective outreach for our retired player population.  We are getting advice from the best experts.  We met last week with people from the National Institute on Mental Health, the Veterans Administration, some private agencies that have been working with the government and with Dr. Satcher, who as surgeon general developed the first national strategy on mental health and the first national suicide prevention program.  We have brought together some of the best people in the area.  Even though the NIOSH study shows that rates of death for players from suicide are markedly below what you would expect, that is not good enough.  We want to develop programs with the leadership and expertise from Dr. Satcher and some of the other people we met with to help deal more effectively with transitions in life, the transition from being an active player, the stress that comes with that, the financial pressures that can come with that and see if we can’t come up with a program that will allow earlier, more active, more effective intervention.  Troy will talk more about that.

The other thing that we discussed was in the context of player benefits.  As I think everybody knows, part of the collective bargaining agreement was the creation of what we call the Legacy Fund, a fund that is about $620 million and is used to boost the pension benefits of the players who left the game before 1993.  Because of the way the documents were drafted, the benefit did not extend to widows who lost their husbands prior to the effective date of the collective bargaining agreement, which was last August.  Sylvia Mackey and some other widows called that issue to our attention.  We have had discussions with the union about it.  While those discussions have been inconclusive, the ownership decided it would go ahead on its own and provide the benefit to the widows and pay the same share for doing so that we are paying for the Legacy Fund.  The Legacy Fund is basically being split on a 51-49 basis.  We are going to do the same thing for survivors and will provide, retroactive to last August, survivor benefits for the widows and other survivors on that 51 percent basis.  We hope the union will come along and fund the balance of it, but at least they won’t be sitting around getting nothing and looking for this seemingly inconclusive dickering to go on and on.  The ownership were quite supportive of taking that step. 

The other thing we talked about was funding medical research.  As you know, there are provisions in the collective bargaining agreement for doing that.  Again, those provisions require agreement between the parties, which we haven’t been able to reach.  We are going to go ahead on our own with the National Institute of Health and take research projects from them and to them and fund them independently through NFL Charities outside of the collective bargaining agreement and not allow the absence of agreement between us and the Players Association to retard valuable research and keep it from getting started.  We are going to go ahead and get started with that.  We will be giving you more information as we develop the full relationship with the National Institute of Health.  We have had a number of meetings with them.  They are very enthusiastic about working with us.  They think that the work they have been talking with us about can upgrade benefits not just for football players and not just for athletes but for the general population as a whole because a lot of the issues that we are going to be talking with them about and that we have talked with them about are, as Dr. Satcher emphasized to the membership today, health issues that affect our society as a whole.  Mental illness, depression, orthopedic injuries, high blood pressure, diabetes and whatever it might be, those are issues that are not limited to NFL players.  They affect our society as a whole, and we can lead, we can support research in those areas.  We are excited to be working with people who we think are as probably as good as it gets in the people at the National Institute of Health. 

Vincent: I gave an update on where we were from a current player-former player programming standpoint.  Last year, we touched about 25 percent of our population with some of the services in our programs that we offer.  Each one of our programs actually consists of both having former and active players.  We updated ownership on how many players we were actually touching inside the active body as well as the former player population with our CTP programs, which are our career transitioning programs that we hold four times a year, once a quarter.  Those programs have typically been at Georgia Tech.  We had one at Rice, and our next one is scheduled for October at Stanford.  We are looking to expand those programs.  Those transitional programs, the audience is for players who are one-to-seven years transitioning out of the game.  There is a strong emphasis on psychological and mental wellness and the self identity.  We updated management on that.

We talked a little bit about benefits and security now that we have had some realignment internally with our benefits and security department in collaboration efforts to better serve the player and his surrounding influencers – his agent, parents and his significant other.  We have tried to really make sure all information is transparent and is going out to all audiences that actually touch the athlete in the event the athlete is not actually getting the information or doesn’t know where to go to get the information.

We spoke a little bit about transitional services and where we need to be in light of the conversation.  Since the passing of Junior Seau, it has been the topic of discussion: what are we doing in that particular area or what have we done?  I found it to be a tremendous loss of our football family but a wonderful opportunity to talk organically about what we are doing.  Some of these services that exist were around when I first came in(to the NFL) in 1992.  When we talk about player assistance, player assistance services, the ability to have one-on-one counseling or the ability to touch someone in a crisis situation, it has been there and been available.  We can do a better job of diving a little bit deeper and getting a little bit granular in how we are touching. 

Quite frankly, we are fighting the stigma of help and of assistance.  An area that will be of strong emphasis for us moving forward is how we touch the player and how do we dispel some of the myths that currently exist in the public about the macho image, whether it is concussions or head injuries.  We have been in lengthy discussions with those from the suicide prevention organizations in talking about language and how we can meet the player where he is. 

McKay: Competition Committee wise, you remember from the March meeting that we had a couple of proposals that we carried over.  One involved Bylaw Proposal No. 2, which was moving the trade deadline from Week 6 to Week 8 and Bylaw Proposal   6A, which involved injured reserve and the ability to designate one player on an injured reserve with the ability to practice after six weeks and come back after eight weeks.  Today, what we did is delegated the authority to the CEC (Management Council Executive Committee) to finalize or negotiate with the union for an implementation of those rules.  Those require union discussion and input.  The CEC will have control over both of those proposals on a go-forward basis. 

The one we did vote on was Playing Rule Proposal No. 8A.  It involves the intention in 2013 to have mandatory thigh and knee pads.  This has been a topic that we have discussed for a number of years with the union and internally.  There are probably some of us who are remiss that we ever took it from the rulebook when we took it out of the rulebook and made it more recommended as opposed to mandatory.  Obviously, high school makes it mandatory; college makes it mandatory.  In our mind, that is what should occur here.  It will in the 2013 season.  We have some input to get from the union before that, and we have some design work from some of the manufacturers on pads and improvements from the last time they were mandatory both in the thigh and knee areas.  That is really the extent of what we did today.  We didn’t vote on anything else. 

Pash: We just learned that Professor (Stephen) Burbank, the system arbitrator under the collective bargaining agreement, has rejected the challenge to the Salary Cap adjustments that was filed by the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys and granted our motion to dismiss that claim. That decision came out in the last 15-20 minutes – I have not had a chance to read it yet, but I am told it is a complete dismissal of the claims.

On if that is the final step in that process:

Pash: I have learned through bitter experience that it is generally a mistake to say it is over when it comes to legal challenges, but I would certainly assume that Professor Burbank has written his usual careful opinion and that it does resolve rather completely all of the issues. As I mentioned, I have not read the opinion yet, but the way he does things, he tends to close things off pretty well.

On if hip pads are indeed absent from the rule proposal:

McKay: Yes, hip pads are not in Rule Proposal 8A. We talked a lot about it, and found even though they are mandatory at the college level, a lot of players do not wear them. We felt like it was not necessary for us to put in this rule. So we did not.

On what happened with concussions and roster exemptions:

McKay: We wanted to stay focused on the IR rule first because that provides some roster flexibility. It can include a concussed player. We felt like we wanted to do one at a time. This year, our focus ended up being on this rule – this IR exception if you will. We will study that one further and bring it back. But for now, the focus was on the IR exception. We did not discuss today the concussion proposal. We had tabled that in March; so it remains tabled.

On why new equipment rule does not go into effect until 2013:

McKay: We want to give players an opportunity, and want to give the manufacturers and opportunity to make sure we have the best technology we can have and the most comfortable way to wear it – whether it is a girdle or inside the pant that you have. That will require some input from the players, also. So we think this gives us the best opportunity to implement it by giving us that bigger window.

On when that was taken out of the rule book originally:

McKay: I am guessing to say it was sometime in 1996 or 1997, somewhere in there. The reason was because we had gotten out of the business of enforcing it. It was a rule that was sitting on the books but yet was not being enforced. So it came out. We are going to put it back in.

On if the padding rule requires NFLPA approval:

McKay: It is a playing rule. The way we have always involved the union, and I believe the CBA speaks to this, means we sit down and we discuss it with them – which we have discussed this rule with them numerous times, but we would again next year before implementation – get their input, they are happy to give us a vote too, but we still have vote of the membership as far as playing rules can go, and can implement this in.

On expected impact of requiring pads:

McKay: Common sense tells you it has to be safer for purposes of the thigh injuries and potentially knee bruises. We see no downside whatsoever for doing it. We also looked back and said if they players have worn it in Pop Warner, high school and college; and we got comfortable with certain players out of the 1980s not wearing them and letting them go away – we felt like from a safety standpoint, it is time to put them back in. If we can help players remain safer and not have any effect on the game and just makes player safety better – we thought it was a rule we should implement.

Pash: I would add one other point to that, which goes to what Rich was saying about Pop Warner, high school and college. We want our game and our players to be setting the standard for safety. To have something which is a safety rule and intended to enhance safety in the game at every level but the NFL; that is an anomaly that does not make sense. Our players should be wearing the pads, setting the example, showing younger players and athletes at other levels of the game that this is the right thing to do. This is the way to play the game and to keep yourself protected. We want to encourage that by players, by coaches, and by other people involved in the game.

On if there is empirical evidence that the additional padding makes the game safer or if it is anecdotal:

McKay: I would have to say both. Common sense dictates to you that it is clearly safer. We think if you allow with this the many factors to have a better look, how the girdles could fit and how you could have more coverage, there are things they can do that can make it even safer. There had been studies – that have always been somewhat disputed by the union as to what the numbers really show on thigh contusions and knee contusions and whether the pads would necessarily affect that. We just look at it from a common sense-standpoint. There is no downside. They add some protection. To Jeff’s point, we have it our football system where everyone wears them prior to the NFL.

On if it is possible to quantify the percentage of injuries they would expect to decrease as a result:

McKay: No, I would not say I could quantify that. First, I would like to see where we get in the design of the pad and if you end up with different pads for different players, meaning position and size, and then hopefully you are going to move the needle. But in our mind, if you are moving the needle 10 percent, you have moved the needle. It is the right way to move the needle and there is no downside to it. So that is really how as a Committee we came to this position.

On how the rule will be enforced:

McKay: It is the same as the rule that is in the book now for equipment. If you ran out there without a helmet, we would tell you that you have to come off the field. It is a safety rule. You would do the same thing you do now. You have a pregame inspection. We have a uniform inspection, and that uniform inspection involves the equipment, meaning you make sure the player has shoulder pads, cleats, and a helmet. In this case, you are going to make sure that the thigh pads are in and the knee pads are in. If not, you will tell him at that point in time. If an official sees him [without the pads on the field] he will remove him.

On why players would not want to wear the pads:

Vincent: It’s psychological. You think that fewer pads mean you are faster and fewer pads mean you are skinnier. It is just the psychological way I was introduced to the game. Rich makes a good point; through Pop Warner, high school and college we always had pads. I wore a neck roll in high school because I thought it was safer. As I got through college, I took the neck roll off, but it was always pads. I was taught with Coach Alvarez at Wisconsin we could not practice without all of our equipment on. When you got to the NFL, it was just a different culture. So I think there will be a culture shift. There will be a changing of the mindset. But they will adapt.

On what pads he wore when playing in the NFL:

Vincent: I wore shoulder pads – quarterback shoulder pads. No knee pads; no thigh boards; no butt pads, no hip pads. It was cleats, a set of quarterback shoulder pads, and a helmet.

On if he suffered any injuries that could have been prevented with pads:

Vincent: The thigh bruises, yes, with the facemasks brushing across my thigh from time to time. I actually had three knee surgeries. Not sure if the pads would have helped that. But no pads, just pants and shoulder pads.

On his thoughts on the rule making the pads mandatory:
Vincent: It is good for the game. To Jeff’s point, we should be setting the example. My children today play youth and high school football. It is the way it should be done. You are properly equipped and dress the kids. That is the only way they know, and then when it has gotten to our level, it has changed. But it is something they were comfortable with and had adapted to early on in their lives. I think it will be a natural progression, especially with the changing of the culture coming in.

On if the IR proposal was brought on by any particular player:
McKay: The IR proposal has been talked about for four or five years, and it has always been talked about because of the pressures of the roster and the fact that if early in the season you have a star player injured and that pressure of needing that roster spot means putting him on IR. So it has always been talked about. What we have always been worried about is we don’t want to just create a 54th roster spot. So we have talked about it. We have never gotten to the point where we could agree on how it would operate. This was the first year, in the Competition Committee, we spent a day going through language and trying to come up with a way where we felt like we created a narrow enough exception where you were not just adding a roster spot, but you were actually dealing with that type of player. So I would say no, there is no player in the last two or three years that you could point to and say that is the reason. Art Rooney has been a guy that has pushed me on this issue for a number of years to talk about it. But there is no particular player that drove it.

On the proposed trade deadline:

McKay: The proposed trade deadline is something that we have talked about for a number of years. We just felt like this was the perfect year to do it because of the change in the CBA. With the CBA changing and acceleration not occurring on trades but being driven by the June 1 Rule, there is a technicality there. It used to be that if you traded a player, acceleration occurred under the salary cap. That limited trades dramatically during the season. You would always see articles discussing potential trades and then we would say ‘well what happened here.’ The salary cap was one of the reasons. That impediment has now been eliminated, because now the acceleration is driven by the June 1 Rule. So in our mind, there was an opportunity for more trades. There has always been a pushback by some of us that we do not want to move the trade deadline too late because we don’t want the deadline to affect competition on the field late in the year as can occur in other sports. We were definitely motivated by that. That is where we felt like Week 8 was a good week. Everybody is still in it. There is virtually nobody in Week 8 that in our league is eliminated. We felt like it was a fair proposal to the teams and potentially allowed more trades.

On how long it will take the CEC to approve:

McKay: I don’t know that. I leave that to them. We have plenty of time. There is no hurry here, because neither that proposal nor the IR proposal really has to be in place – I guess maybe you would say at the start of training camp; but you could actually say at the start of the season. Neither of which would be affected by preseason activates. I could not give you a time deadline.

On roster requirement:

McKay: We put a roster requirement only because we wanted to make sure that you carried that player forward so you did not have 54 but you had 53. That was the purpose.

On difficulty for players to find help after retirement:

Vincent: The assistance and the resources have always been there.  It’s getting the player to actually utilize them and that’s been the greater discussion of how do we begin to engage them a little sooner.  Last week in our meeting, the young lady from the Veterans’ Association mentioned in military terms that they’re using the term ‘the new normal’.  I think it is something where we’re at from our transitioning our former players, ‘what is the new normal and accepting the new normal?’  What happens is you’re three, four, five years removed from the game and the acceptance of you no longer playing has still not taken place.  We’ll continue and that’s why we have a strong emphasis on the agents; working with the union; working with parents; working with all of the influencers around the athlete to get them the information on if you’re seeing signs of ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’.  These resources are available to you, your parents so that someone can contact us or the club to get the player the proper assistance. 

On Junior Seau’s death influencing these ideas or if they were already in the works:

Vincent: I think it allowed us to talk about it broader and become a partner in a broader subject that not only plagues our nation, but the NFL player is not exempt from those things in a normal society.  I think his death – though it gives us a wonderful opportunity, a great platform to talk about what we do and the services that are provided – but it also allowed us as a league to become a partner in broader messaging on things that actually plague our society – suicide prevention, health wellness.  We miss him dearly, but it allowed us to have this conversation today, bring an expert from those fields to tell us where we need to be as far as education and different lines of communication that we have to have.  Also, it’s given us the opportunity to work with the National Crisis Association.  We learned that having one number, a suicide number, it works good.  It’s a method that is not affiliated with a club.  It’s not affiliated with the NFL.  It’s not affiliated with the union.  It is something that all citizens of the United States can actually access.     

On plans to reach out to players at the college level:

Vincent: We felt like to develop a better professional that we had to see the athletes sooner.  We call it our prep platform.  It allows us through our college and high school outreach we have a program called our ambassador’s program that our former players that come in are trained in areas of continuing education; transition; the campus life; compliance.  We use these former players to go back to the college campuses and talk about their experiences, talk about setting industry standards.  We believe that if we want to have a better professional, we just have to touch the athletes sooner.  In the past, the first time that we’ve had any engagement with them was at the all-star game, which in many cases at that time, that athlete is in financial crisis or in family relationship crisis.  Now, we get a chance to speak to him and his family as freshman, sophomore and toward his senior year and him transitioning out of college.    

On when the ambassador’s program began:  

Vincent: It is now going into its third year.  2010 was its first year.

On how hard it is to reach out to kids in their early 20s:

Vincent: It’s a challenge.  That’s the reality and the world that we live in – getting someone that’s 21, 23, 24 to even think about what life looks like at the age of 30.  We have to fight that.  I was once that young man arriving in South Florida as a 21-year old, I’m now a part of the dream that I’ve always lived.  In the same discussion when Coach Shula was telling me about practice schedule, John Offerdahl  was in my ear telling me what life is going to look like after it’s over in the same exact day.  We want to be sensitive to and making sure we embrace who he is, but also the realities of your body having an expiration date. 

On working with the NFLPA in reaching out to athletes:

Vincent: We’ve tried.  I actually spoke with two of their officials yesterday and really hoping that we can collaborate.  These are areas in the development of the athlete that we should have collaboration.  Proposed to them early in January, they came into our office and both staffs met and we laid out every program and service offering.  We shared with them the resources that we’ve put behind it and asked that they be an active participant, not just in the development of the content but also financially.  I gave that same proposal yesterday because this is an area in the athletic development space where we’re not talking about some of the other things, the rules of the game.  We’re talking about developing people and having healthy families.  That discussion and dialogue is ongoing and we hope that they become an active participant in what we do.

On dispelling the culture of the athletes being able to play through injuries:

Vincent: That’s part of the education as we’re talking to the experts of that’s the ‘macho.’  That’s what I would say in some cases has made the athlete special.  The days of tough it out, get up, suck it up – those days are over.  Was that the right thing to do? No, but at that time, that was the way young men were taught.  There’s a process now.  It kind of goes back to the greater conversation, the athlete must engage.  He must be willing to take ownership and personal responsibility into his health, his safety and his general well-fare – current and as he transitions out of the game.

On how difficult it is for the players to not have a macho mentality:

Vincent: There’s balance in that.  You have to have balance in that.  I think we need to begin to have that discussion with those people that are around and those influencers that are around the athlete.  They feed us what we want to hear instead of the reality and the truths of who we really are and what we are supposed to be moving forward.  As the athlete, we have to take some more personal responsibility in that space and right now, we try to put blinders onto that and what happens is five, six, seven years down the line, it comes back and impedes us for the rest of our lives. 

On how involved the NFL has been since Junior’s death and there being any increase in player’s asking for help:

Vincent: We haven’t seen any from the actual players.  Where we’ve seen an increase with grief counseling, which has always existed.  Every club has a clinician on staff that a player or his family has access to.  What we’ve seen is an increase with actually the spouses now contacting the office in regards to their husband because with what we’ve seen in the public, the writing and the stories.  One of the things we’ve talked about is defining the risk.  T here’s no single reason why one commits suicide, but there are things like lack of sleep and so on that may be signs of depression.  Now that the language is out and some of the education materials that we’re putting out, we see that the spouses are now actually reaching out in areas of counseling as well. 

On what the spouses want to know:

Vincent: What are some of the things we should be looking for?  The spouses are asking the questions, what other the things we should be looking for?  My husband is having a hard time obtaining employment.  He’s not sleeping.  He’s picking up weight.  What does this mean moving forward?  He’s disengaged with the family.  He’s not talking to his children as much.  They’re asking questions.  What do we do?  What’s the best way for me to have this conversation with my husband where it doesn’t become a hostile environment?  That former athlete still has a mentality of, ‘I’m ok. It’s all good.’  Those are some of the questions from the spouses and we sit down and those conversations become one-on-one counseling with the spouse. 

On him realistically seeing a point where they will have players sit out games, etc.:

Vincent: I see that’s the progression.  I think that’s the right thing to do.  I think now players are more aware of what can happen.  The reality of, ‘Hey, we play 16 games.’ You’ve got six days in most cases until you get half way through when you’re playing on Thursday where you may have four or five days to get ready for the next one, but the realities are you’ve got to take care of your body.  We have to take that kind of out of our own hands.  In cases in what we are doing, we’re implementing some of the things on the sidelines where you’re taking that choice out of the coach’s and out of the player’s hand and into a medical professional’s hand.  It’s the right thing to do for the game and for the individual, more importantly.               

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