Thursday, July 29, 2010

NFL More Cognizant About Concussions

From True/Slant on December 3, 2009:

NFL Finally Catching Up on Concussions

If you were starting an all tough guy NFL team, you would have to name Hines Ward at one of the wide out positions. No doubt, he is one of the baddest, most fearless wide receivers of the modern era. He puts his body on the line with a recklessness rarely seen at this glamor position. I have never once seen him alligator arm a pass or flinch going across the middle. He takes defenders on and most of the time he wins. He blocks so hard he has been known to break bones of defenders. He takes the fiercest hits defensive backs can dish out and comes up with a big grin on his face. Nobody would ever question Ward’s toughness.

His judgment on the other hand …

On Sunday night, before the Steelers and Ravens kicked off, Ward was interviewed by NBC’s Bob Costas and indicated that he thought, well, some of the guys in the locker room kinda sorta thought a concussed Ben Roethlisberger should maybe play, further indicating that, you know, Roethlisberger could have lied to doctors in order to be cleared to play because it was such a big game. The implication was clear: other guys lie in order to play with concussions and so Roethlisberger should have lied and played, too.

Ward has since backed off, publicly and privately apologized to Roethlisberger and to his team, which is good because those were some stupid comments. But for purposes of this column, I’m not interested in the chemistry of the Steelers roster or the relationship between Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger. What I am interested is the mindset Ward evidenced in that interview, because he is hardly alone in his foolish, macho thinking.

So for Ward and anybody else in any locker room from here to San Diego who thinks concussions are no big deal, I have two words: Mike Webster.

The great Mike Webster, a tough guy’s tough guy, anchored the Steelers line in the 1970’s. Webbie was old-timey and even looked like he was from another era, with thinning hair and a mug that belonged in one of those sepia photos from the leather helmet years. He was the lead blocker for Franco and Rocky and the last line of defense for Bradshaw. The guy was great at his job. The nickname Iron Mike was no gift, he earned that.

But as great as his career was, the end of his life was equally sad. Later in life, Webster suffered a whole host of dementia-like issues, most if not all of which referred back to his playing years when defensive linemen teed off on his head like it was a pinata. (There are also allegations that Webster and his linemates abused steroids, which he never admitted, but anecdotal evidence leans that way.)

At any rate, back when Webster was playing, players didn’t rest because they were concussed; if a guy got “dinged” (the popular, dismissive term for it) in the first half, he usually played in the second half. Headaches during practice? C’mon man. Nobody missed a game because of headaches. This is a tough man’s league and any hint of weakness, like being felled by a common headache, is anathema.

Webster played through hundreds, no thousands of head slaps and helmet to helmet collisions. By the end of his career, doctors estimated that his head had been through the equivalent of about 25,000 car crashes. One of the results of which was that, by the end of his shortened life, he often lived in his car.

I met Mike Webster precisely once, during training camp, in the 1970’s when I was a kid. He was nice to a little girl who was awestruck by the great and magnificent Steelers and I appreciated that. I did not know the man, just his work, but I couldn’t help but tear up when I heard of his death in the fall of 2002. Because it was so tragic and so completely unnecessary.

The NFL is finally starting to see the light on this. I hope there’s a time when there are stricter guidelines and more definite rules governing player eligibility after a closed head injury. I’d like the league to mandate at least one game off after a concussion, just so that players and coaches don’t have to take the heat, with implications being that they’re not tough enough for the sport. Okay so it took Congress looking into the matter to get the NFL to do something about it, but better late to the party than never. Here’s part of the new guidelines:

“Once removed for the duration of a practice or game, the player should not be considered for return-to-football activities until he is fully asymptomatic, both at rest and after exertion, has a normal neurological examination, normal neuropsychological testing and has been cleared to return by both his team physician(s) and the independent neurological consultant.”

And I hope that’s just the beginning. I know knee injuries and ankle injuries and shoulder injuries hurt and become arthritic and all that. But you can function on a messed up knee. You can have a pretty nice life with a few pins in your shoulders. While a knee injury can end a guy’s career, a head injury can ruin his life or prematurely end it because you can never get your brain back. Never. At least the NFL and some players are starting to realize that.

I credit Roethlisberger for telling the truth to the doctors. It evidences a level of maturity we didn’t see from him following his 2006 automobile accident. Roethlisberger played that season and seemed “dinged” throughout. Midway through the season, he was knocked cold in a game in Atlanta. He played the next week in Oakland. I was furious with Coach Cowher for letting him play that day. Maybe it was not Cowher’s fault. Perhaps Roethlisberger hid his symptoms. Maybe he lied to doctors back in 2006 because he was, in fact, “medically cleared to play” that week. Despite that, everybody who saw that game knew he should not have been out there.

So I’m glad Roethlisberger told the truth three years later, because losing one game sucks, but not as much as the long-term effects of multiple concussions.

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