Former Football Star Defends The Game

Mounting scientific evidence is linking football to brain trauma. While calls to increase safety measures in football are getting louder, players themselves often resist efforts to change the game. Host Michel Martin speaks with former Pro Bowl NFL player LaVar Arrington, who argues that the risks of the sport are worth it.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are continuing with our special program focusing on concussions and sports. Researchers are also studying the issue of brain trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in sports like ice hockey and soccer.

For now, though, the so-called concussion crisis is most talked about in connection with the NFL. So, we want to hear how the league is addressing the issue and we'll hear from two sports reporters later on that.

But first, we want to get a player's perspective, so we've called LaVar Arrington. He played for the Washington Redskins and also for the New York Giants and was selected for football's Pro Bowl three times.

These days, Arrington is involved with a company he founded that puts on football clinics for young athletes. It's called Xtreme Procision and he writes the sports blog called "Hard Hits" for the Washington Post, and he's with us from there now.

LaVar Arrington, welcome to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

LAVAR ARRINGTON: Thanks for having me, Michel. How you doing?

MARTIN: I'm great. Now, one of the...

ARRINGTON: Good, good.

MARTIN: One of the reasons we wanted to speak with you is that you wrote a blog for the Post back in 2010 saying that concussions are part of the game. And quoting now, you said "that's the reality of it and I believe that every person that picks up the pads to play this violent sport understands that."

But, since then, you know, former Chicago Bears player, Dave Duerson, took his own life. Autopsies later demonstrated he had CTE. The University of Pennsylvania player, Owen Thomas, took his own life. He has CTE. And then, of course, the family of former San Diego Chargers star, Junior Seau, also took his own life and donated some of his brain tissue for research and I wondered if any of this has changed your view of this.

ARRINGTON: Well, those things actually took place before I wrote that, Michel, and except for, I guess, Junior, who was a personal friend of mine, when you look at the dynamic of full-contact sports, I think the reality has to be understood and stated that you run the risk of having injuries that are associated with full-contact sports, so my stance hasn't changed on it. It's just a reality that exists in any full-contact sport.

MARTIN: One of the things that was interesting about your blog is that you talked about the - you talked about the first time you think you had a concussion, which was in high school, and you said that, ultimately, that night and that play changed my mentality. I felt like I was invincible because I was able to keep playing through an injury that many can't and at a high level, at that.

And I wonder if you think that that's actually part of the appeal of the sport, is the idea of you really testing yourself.

ARRINGTON: I think the appeal is testing yourself physically and mentally. You know, I think the way it's being stated kind of comes across as barbaric, in a way, but it's really not. I mean, I'm very educated. I'm an intelligent person. Obviously, not as distinguished as your previous guest, but you know what? When you look at what goes into competing, I often make mention of the fact that I come from a military family and so the mentality that goes along with how you handle your business, how you go about your daily work, is that of a blue collar worker. You know what it is that you need to do and you go out there and you get the job done. That's how I was raised.

So, when I talked about a mentality that went with being able to actually move beyond getting dinged or getting a concussion within the game, that was a mentality that went along with it and I think that is a mentality that a lot of people embrace that play full-contact sports.

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's right, but I will say this. We also have to take a look at not getting so far removed out of understanding that there are all kinds of injuries and illnesses and different inflictions that people deal with on a regular day-to-day basis. So I always talk about being educated, being proactive in what it is that you do and understanding what goes into the position that you play, the sport that you play and how you can try to learn how to avoid finding collisions that may lead to concussions or different things like that.

But, as far as my opinion - yeah. That was my opinion at the time.

MARTIN: What about now?

ARRINGTON: I think now, again, I think it comes back to whatever it is that you do. This is how I teach my children in terms of life. Whatever it is that you do, you take pride in what it is that you do and, when you take pride in those things, that means that you learn what it is that you're doing. That means that you educate yourself and try to train yourself to be able to do it, and I think that that's what plays into it.

MARTIN: Let me jump in for a minute because a lot of the focus is on youth sports now. People are saying...

ARRINGTON: Sure.

MARTIN: ...that, you know, NFL players are adults and they have a right to make decisions, even decisions other people might not agree with, even decisions that might be harmful because they are adults.

A lot of the focus now is on youth sports because it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you've had players like Troy Aikman. You know, and one of the sacks that you delivered to him effectively ended his career, but one of the things he has said is that, if he had a 10-year-old boy, he says, I don't know that I'd be real inclined to encourage him to go play football.

Other people you who have sons say - you do have a son who's playing. One of the reasons this becomes a pressing issue is that a lot of people feel, if you don't teach kids early, then they won't have the skills to play later on.

ARRINGTON: Right.

MARTIN: But, if you do expose them early, then they run the risk of injury, and I want to know how you work this out as a parent yourself and as a person who loves the game.

ARRINGTON: Well, I'm proactive. Again, you mentioned my company at the top of the segment, Xtreme Procision, which you can - anybody can go online. My challenge to people that have that question is to get involved. If you love the game of football, if your children love the game of football, I don't think that you take away opportunities for something that someone may dream of or aspire to be in their life. I think you teach them.

And, like it was stated before, you have doctors and all kinds of different support staff on the sideline for NFL players. That doesn't exist for the lower levels of football, so it's a challenge and it's actually - to me, it's a call to action for parents. Parents need to educate themselves more on the activities that they're allowing their children to be a part of, and I think that that's where the line in the sand has to be drawn.

I allow my kids to play sports because, whatever sport it is that they're going to play, we make sure we work on it, we exercise it and we educate ourselves on what it is that they're doing out there.

MARTIN: We only have a minute left and we're going to have a parenting conversation later and we're going to dig into that a little bit more. I just have to ask you briefly. Are you ever worried about yourself? Are you worried that you, later on in life, are going to suffer some of these things that you've been hearing so much about?

ARRINGTON: I'd rather have went through my life having lived it than being too scared to have ever tried to live at all. So, you know, people have built skyscrapers. If we didn't have people who were willing to go out there and build a skyscraper, we wouldn't have the Eiffel Tower. We wouldn't have some of the great structures that we have in life.

Ultimately, the minute you're born, you're into a world where you have to take chances and nothing is certain. So I don't live with that type of fear and that type of mentality. I use my mind. I keep my brain sharp and whatever happens, I'll meet that challenge when it comes, just like I've done thus far in my life.

MARTIN: That's former NFL player, three time Pro Bowler, LaVar Arrington. He now writes a sports blog for the Washington Post and he's the founder of a football training company, Xtreme Procision, and he was kind enough to join us from the studios at the Washington Post.

LaVar Arrington, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ARRINGTON: Thank you, Michel.

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