By Ann Killion | Scripps Howard
The biggest news coming out of the recent Sports Concussion Symposium, at Santa Clara University's Institute of Sports Law and Ethics, came from keynote speaker Ronnie Lott.
"I'm going to encourage people not to say 'woo' anymore," Lott said.
Lott, as a Hall of Fame defensive back with the San Francisco 49ers, perfected the art of the "woo lick" -- the hit that makes everyone watching say "woo." The bone-jarring, head-snapping blow that takes out a player and is a staple of America's favorite form of violence.
The "woo lick" can be a death sentence. The wealth of evidence on concussions presented at the symposium -- medical, legal, anecdotal -- by an array of experts was chilling.
But it's not so easy to get people to stop saying "woo." It's not so easy to change reactions -- in players, fans, leagues, institutions. And that's probably the biggest challenge for those seeking reforms within the game of football: How do you change a culture?
Last month, the NFL settled lawsuits with 4,500 former players for $765 million, a settlement that most people at the symposium found lacking in one way or another. The deal specifies that the NFL has no admission of liability. Next month, the book "League of Denial," by former Chronicle staff writer Mark Fainaru-Wada and his brother, Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Fainaru, will address the question of what the NFL knew and when it knew it.
"I didn't realize how profound the level of denial was in the NFL for years and years and years," Fainaru said. "The NFL agreed to pay three-quarters of a billion dollars to people who have injuries that they denied were real."
Lott can tell us not to say "woo," and ESPN can cancel its "Jacked Up" segment, but huge hits are still a staple of football. You see it every Sunday.
Last fall, just as the concussion story was raging, there were notable instances of college athletes being left in games after being hit in the head. USC receiver Robert Woods was hit, got up woozily and headed to the wrong sideline but only missed one play. Arizona quarterback Matt Scott was hit in the head, vomited several times on the field, but stayed in the game. And was roundly lauded for being a tough guy.
Lott advocates making sure that any concussed player is taken into the locker room, "so he's not talked about."
Perhaps the most damning development for the cause came last season when Alex Smith suffered a concussion and lost his starting job forever. Commentators insinuated that he was soft. Players took one look at Smith's situation and became more determined than ever to stay in the game.
The culture of concussions is hard to change. At any level.
Dr. Cindy Chang, the former head physician for Cal athletics, is co-chair of the California Concussion Coalition. Years ago, former Cal head coach Tom Holmoe, who played for the 49ers, took money out of his football budget to help fund her concussion research.
"He knew he was having difficulty with his memory," Chang said. "He understood it was an issue, which is why he funded us."
But that's rare. Most college coaches today not only wouldn't want to give up any of their own budgets, they don't want to acknowledge concussions. The NCAA does not mandate protocol, leaving it up to the individual schools. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education study, more than half of the responding trainers said they felt pressure from head coaches to send concussed players back on the field before they are medically ready. The issues in college are troubling, as athletes have no disability, workers' compensation or medical protection.
Further down the food chain, the problems are even more acute. Many high schools lack trainers on the sideline and top equipment.
The resources are different, but the culture is the same. Players don't want to come off the field. Don't want the other guy to take their job. Don't want to show vulnerability.
If the culture doesn't change, it could become endangered. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, sales of football equipment are down 17.5 percent since 2008. As parents become more alarmed, fewer kids are playing football.
Lott saw his own son suffer a concussion. He estimates he had at least 20 of his own. Lott thinks the culture can change, but would the man who perfected the "woo lick," who once gave up his own finger to stay on the field really come off voluntarily?
"I would still be the same passionate, destructive, maniacal competitor," he said. "I would have to do it within the confines of the rules."
Is that even possible?