Pro football players today are so media-savvy. As evidence, we present 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown.
Tuesday, Brown was asked a simple question. It involved the NFL owners' decision to require mandatory thigh and knee pads for all players, starting with the 2013 season. The NFL Players Association must also sign off on the rule but thus far has been noncommittal.
So how would Brown vote? Is he in favor of mandatory thigh and knee pads?
He thought for a second.
"It depends," Brown replied, "on how big the pads are."
Which was a very clever response. Except that Brown wasn't kidding. Other players have answered the same question the same way, particularly those at the speed positions such as defensive back and wide receiver. Brown is concerned that if pads are too bulky, they will slow him down. For his five seasons in the league, he has been quite OK with trading bruises-per-collision for miles-per-hour.
Which, in a nutshell, explains the NFL's biggest problem in trying inflict more safety upon the game: The players can be their own worst enemies. At least in terms of accepting the protection they need.
Tuesday afternoon at their practice facility, the 49ers began another round of "Organized Team Activities." Back in the day, we used a far less technical term for such things: "Practice."
However, the current "OTA" sessions do bear a striking non-similarity to many offseason "practice" sessions of old.
It's part of the cutback in big-time collisions during NFL practices that began in 2011 and now even extends into training camp (when only one full-contact practice is allowed per day). Players seem quite happy with the change. Coaches have made the adjustment. But here's the funny thing; When you talk with players about bringing more safety measures to the games themselves, the reaction is almost universally negative.
For example, Raiders cornerback Ron Bartell recently told another reporter from this paper that he would refuse to use thigh or knee pads, saying: "Personally, I won't be wearing them -- so I'd better put some fine money away."
For another example, let's look at the response to another suggested rules modification in the discussion stage: Abolishment of the three-point stance for offensive and defensive linemen. By forcing them to stand at the scrimmage line on just their two feet without a hand on the ground, it would decrease the linemen's leverage coming off the ball and create initial contact at shoulder-to-shoulder height. This would lessen the helmet-to-helmet collisions that produce concussions.
Fantastic idea, right? Uh, not in the book of 49ers offensive lineman Mike Person.
"I don't like it," Person said Tuesday. "I can see how it would make a game safer. But I don't know ... I honestly think there might be more injuries because you'd be coming off the line in different kinds of ways with your body twisted in different positions."
Of course, as Person admitted, no one knows that for sure. He also understands how, after hearing a player say a rules change would keep his skull more secure, it sounds nuts to hear the very same player say he would hate that new rule.
Yet as Person notes, the only concussion he's ever sustained occurred in a pickup volleyball game. He dove for a ball and his head banged into someone's knee.
"So I'm OK with mandatory knee pads and thigh pads," Person said. "But I'm not that fast, anyway."
It all would indeed be mildly amusing -- and probably is, in late May -- except that when the season starts and players start the usual parade to doctors appointments, it won't be funny. And now is definitely the time to address it in a calm and intelligent fashion, away from the emotion of autumn's weekly violence. In this offseason, player safety isn't just an issue that matters. It is the only issue that matters.
To be sure, the public may be infatuated with silly "Twitter wars" between Alex Smith and Jon Beason, or with which team has agreed to appear on "Hard Knocks," or with projecting fantasy league stats. But after the death of Junior Seau, the lawsuit filed by NFL alumni against the league over injury neglect, the mounting evidence of concussion damage to retired players ... frankly, any discussion about improving game safety should be on the table -- at every level of the sport.
Yes, that includes college and high school (where knee pads are already mandatory). It is not clear if the tragic death of SaberCats player Johnie Kirton over the weekend was football-related. But if so, get that league involved, too.
Let us stipulate that NFL players are the only people who truly know what it's like to play in the NFL. So their voices must be heard.
But let us also stipulate that the answer to any question, be it about the size of pads or a new rule's ability to prevent concussions, should be this:
If the end result is just one fewer cracked kneecap or one fewer former NFL player with dementia, does anyone want to argue that the pads can ever be too big or the rules too stern?
Contact Mark Purdy at email@example.com or 408-920-5092.