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Has the NFL Done Enough to Make the Game Safe?

As two teams prepare to play Super Bowl XLIX, the pregame conversation on 'Meet the Press' focused on how safe the game is for professionals and kids.

As the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks prepare to play Super Bowl XLIX, the pregame conversation is focused on the state of the game as a whole. Representatives from the union that represents NFL players, the league office and a former defensive lineman had differing views Sunday on "Meet the Press" on what the league has done in the past, and present, to protect the players.

Former defensive lineman Leonard Marshall said that the league "had to know something" regarding traumatic brain injuries, even back when he was a three-time Pro Bowler for the New York Giants from 1983-1992. When asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd if the league should be paying for his health care, Marshall responded, “I think they should. You know, the problem with that is you told me everything else. But you didn't tell me about the risk associated with traumatic brain injury.”

Marshall went on to detail his own struggle with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. The neurodegenerative brain disease is commonly found in people who have been exposed to frequent and repetitive brain trauma.

“Scared the daylights out of me,” he said. “And I started talking to people and I started to figure out: I'm not in this by myself. There’s other guys like me.” The autopsies of former players Dave Duerson, Jovan Belcher and Junior Seau — who was elected to the Hall of Fame on Saturday night — all revealed signs of CTE in their brains.

While admitting that the players will never be content with the safety of the game, the NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith argued that organized labor has succeeded in pushing the league into taking significant strides. “So over the last five years, we've done things to revolutionize — not only the way in which fans enjoy football but trying to make the game safer,” the head of the NFLPA said. “There's sideline concussion experts for the first time. There's limits on the amount of contact for the first time.”

The NFL's lead counsel Jeff Pash said that the game “is safer than it has ever been,” citing NFL research that says concussions in the 2014 season are down compared to the previous year. “The fact is that helmet to helmet collisions, which have been the biggest cause of concussions in the past, that helmet to helmet contact is down by more than 40%,” Pash claimed. “So we are definitely making progress, but there's more work to be done. And we want to work with the players and the coaches to continue that culture change and foster that culture of safety.”

When asked by Chuck Todd if he could ever envision the league discouraging children under the age of 12 from playing, Pash acknowledged other options. “Well, I think you've got to have the facts and you've got to see what the alternatives are,” said Pash. “I don't know if that's a practical solution or not. But we support kids getting out and playing, whether it's flag, tackle, as safely as possible. That's our goal.”

Marshall shared the same notion, but put the responsibility on the coaches to change the game for kids. “You can't teach an old dog a new trick unless you start teaching kids at this level,” Marshall said. “Unless you take the helmet out of the game for the eight to twelve year olds and not doing it the way you and I did it when we played. Coach saying ‘Hey, Chuck, see what you hit. Put that helmet right in the chest.’ First day. Day one. over and over and over.”

Neither of the teams in the Super Bowl were exempt from concussion problems during the 2014 season. The following players were listed over the course of the year in the team injury report as having suffered either head injuries or concussion symptoms:

New England Patriots: Danny Aiken, Dan Connolly, Julian Edelman and Bryan Stork

Seattle Seahawks: Jeron Johnson, O’Brien Schofield and Bryan Walters

— Dale Armbruster