Intriguing thoughts from 3X Superbowl Champ Matt Chatham
by Sheilla Dingus
September 27, 2016
The 2016 NFL season is barely four weeks underway and at least 183 players representing almost every team in the NFL are dealing with injuries in varying degrees according to ESPN. Of the 1,696 active players composed of thirty-two 53 man rosters plus 5 practice squad players on each, almost 11 percent are coming back from early season injuries in a time when both the NFLPA and NFL claim to be serious about player safety.
In the last collective bargaining negotiations the NFLPA fought very hard for preseason safety concessions and as a result, the current CBA has very stringent rules in place regarding off season workouts in hopes of increasing player safety Three phases of off season workouts are clearly defined:
Did you notice anything missing from the OTA’s? Look again. Contact is expressly forbidden in a contact sport. Many coaches are not happy about the rules, now in their fifth year, but this is primarily because they find them quite restrictive in player development as stated by Today’s Pigskin:
When it comes to offseason work in the NFL, there is a dirty little secret among many NFL coaches.
Although this might be sacrilegious to some hardcore fans who treat every OTA like a building block to the Super Bowl, the non-contact aspect of the sessions is not regarded as all that valuable by coaches who feel like telling the truth.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the former head coach in Detroit, for instance, freely admitted on numerous occasions this offseason that “you can’t really learn anything until the pads go on.”
And that kind of mentality is why you will see a John Harbaugh flouting the rules in exchange for a slap on the wrist or a Pete Carroll turning into a repeat offender.
These coaches aren’t alone in questioning the value of OTA’s. New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick isn’t happy about them either, but in addition to the preparation concerns, Belichick doesn’t think they do much for player safety either. As quoted by NFL.com he said:
“I’m in favor of total preparation for the players for the season, and I think that’s been changed significantly and, I would say, not necessarily for the better when you look at the injury numbers. Personally, I think that’s taking the wrong approach. You have a gap between preparation and competition level. And I think that’s where you see a lot of injuries occurring. We get a lot of breakdowns. We get a lot of situations that players just aren’t as prepared as they were in previous years, in my experience anyway.”
No contact prior to preseason games seems as if it would prevent injuries, at least on the surface, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Former NFL linebacker and three-time Super Bowl champion Matt Chatham, who spent eight years in the NFL tends to agree with his former coach. I spoke to him at length about this and why he feels preseason games are of utmost importance in absence of off season contact, serving as a kind of buffer between no contact OTA’s and the real deal. He shared some intriguing insights. He stressed that if you’re playing a contact sport such as football, “contact is inherently part of what you’ve gotta do.”
I asked him to elaborate on this, to which he replied, “Football with this new safety nonsense in my view is sort of moving away from sort of natural truths that we’ve known forever. In contact sports where we hit each other a lot there is no such thing as simulation that can be anywhere near the real thing. Boxing, yeah you wear headgear as much as possible but as much as possible you’ve got to simulate some routes. At some point in MMA stuff you have to learn to fall. You’re going to fall a lot. The way those guys train is you go down hundreds of thousands of times over the course of a training session before you have to go in there and do the real thing. Those things are not a debate as if they could come up with some new magic way to get you to fight day. Because first time you get hit and your body is not prepared for that the injury risk is much higher. It is odd to me that this is going in the opposite direction.”
Chatham said the biggest thing that leads him to these conclusions is experience. When I asked why he felt other players weren’t coming forward with similar concerns, he related, “I would imagine as a young player I was probably of the mind, I think guys might migrate toward, especially if you don’t get hurt. I don’t need this just let me do as little as humanly possible and let me go play the games. I will be just fine.” He laughed a bit at that thought, before continuing, “But I think for guys who’ve had injuries or attended training camps, I’ve certainly had my share, . . .just little nicks and scrapes that sort of became more of a problem than they needed to be. Something just taught me it’s nice to harden a little bit during training camp.”
The lack of physical contact is the main reason he feels that preseason games should not be eliminated or scaled down. “Having experienced your body is always going to have an adjustment period it’s always best to have it happen behind closed doors as opposed to a live situation where speed is exponentially more. You can’t simulate it.” He was of course, referring to the adrenaline rush of live regular season games as well as the intensity at which they’re played.
“You watch these practices,” he said, “all playing by CBA practices now. They don’t touch the ground. Backs, receivers, defensive linemen literally get into these games and some have to ward off blocks first time they’re doing it in live action at 100 miles an hour. Again, there’s probably a side to that coin some would argue where they don’t get injured. That doesn’t tell real fact. There’s a heightened risk by not having done it before.”
As with most everything, there are up’s and downs to every solution. “It’s a difficult conversation to have,” Chatham agreed, “If there were no restrictions around what we could do. The other extreme they’re saying for our safety we’re not going to prepare and not going to touch the ground. Get in front of 70,000 people and it will work itself out. Doesn’t make any sense.”
It would seem that the answer must lie somewhere in the middle of “anything goes” practices, and the “don’t touch, don’t fall” preseason practices taking place now.
I asked Chatham if he thought the NFLPA might consider rethinking its position on this. “Absolutely not!” he exclaimed, almost as quickly as I could finish my sentence. “It works a lot like tax policy or major legislation,” he said. “Unwriting the rules is virtually impossible. Once you relinquish some point you don’t turn back the clock.” I was disappointed to hear what he said next, “Their stand on safety is not serious. That was a meaningful negotiations thing. Not something they would relinquish. Something to get back. Your party that cares the most about these guys are going to care less.”
“Coaches care the most, Chatham said, “We talked to them quite a bit they’re frustrated they didn’t have a place at the table when all that went down. Dial it back for them for all the days of too many fully padded practices. It got a little too far. Now they’re the ones whose job’s on the line to prepare people, evaluate people without being dead wrong. Evaluate without seeing them do the real thing except these preseason games.”
From there we moved from the subject of bodily injury to head injury, or the hot-button topic of concussions. I asked him how he felt the league was doing. “The NFL settles for a billion dollars and try to make it sound like it’s from the goodness of their heart,” he said. “A legal settlement to keep from having to admit public accountability or liability. The most aggravating thing that came out of it was they sort of frame it as philanthropy.”
Regarding all of the new rule changes, he added that the league likes to frame them as a preventive measure, “and it’s not, don’t believe that,” he said. “Most of the settling that came out of it was there was something about the game that was wrong, that was endangering players, so they make fifty new rule changes, we’re going to punish you for doing that. All this stuff behind all that. Blame shifting — creating new rules to protect. A seed of dishonesty.” As a retired player, Chatham is in a better position to speak candidly than a player who still has to walk a tripartite tightrope around the league, his team, and the players association. “How players were playing the game before, prior to the NFL rule changes is not the problem, he said, calling the league out, “It’s not a safe game. Acknowledge it.”
Regarding the time he played, Chatham related, “We understood they were being dishonest about threats, health risks, and we understood what the health risks were. Once you’ve had [a concussion], can’t pass protocol, been dinged you need to get out.” I asked how he thought players currently view the concussion risk. “Run as far as you can until your symptoms gone down, I think that’s what most guys focus on now he stated, “Not that there’s some magical tackling technique.” He added, “Guys are understanding that there always was a risk and they want to take away the risk. Now they have a whole lot more info. Once they’ve felt these symptoms, get out. Do something, don’t go back in. That’s certainly changed.”
I interrupted and mentioned the hits Cam Newton took a couple weeks back and his apparent lack of concern. “If that’s his frame of mind God Bless!” Chatham said, “Think that’s how I’d feel. Once you have the info that’s a different conversation all together. The bigger issue is when you didn’t have it. These symptoms…they prompt them to look at you, can sometimes be nothing. No physical symptoms. The worst ones you can’t see, not staggering around the field. Any player that plays knows. Hundreds of the little decisions you make in a season. Just need to know, ‘whoa, that was a little too much.’”
While everyone (hopefully) does care about the safety of the players, Chatham feels that even a good thing can be taken too far, “You really don’t want to unnecessarily remove players,” citing the risk of overreacting, he said, “It can affect the integrity of the contest.”
“It’s a tough call,” he said, and with that statement, I’d definitely have to agree!
Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.