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Michael Phelan
Michael Phelan
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NFL Concussion Policy: a Very Slow Work in Progress

2 comments

With every new round of concussions in the NFL, it seems to me that the press and the NFL react as if dangerous concussions were a new issue in football. The multitude of stories about the brain damage, alzheimers-like symptoms, memory loss, depression, and suicidal behavior of former players like Andre Waters, Mike Webster, Tim Johnson and others get swept under the carpet as the NFL takes its predictable stance of delay and double talk on the issue of brain injuries. And, with the exception of the New York Times series on brain injuries in the NFL, the sports media typically looks the other way. Until now. Sports Illustrated’s Ann Killion has written a piece in her Inside the NFL column accusing Commissioner Roger Goodell of business as usual just as he announced a new policy requiring teams to consult with independent neurologists following a concussion to one of the teams’ players.

Ms. Killion cites the cases of the two quarterbacks who played in last year’s Super Bowl. The Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger left Sunday’s game against the Chiefs after taking a blow to the head and suffering concussion-like syndromes. But by Monday reports out of Pittsburgh described the Super Bowl winning quarterback as "fine" and capable of playing this week. Arizona’s Kurt Warner also left his game against St. Louis after his head slammed into the turf. But the Cardinals are "optimistic" Warner will play this week. This, despite the fact that Big Ben suffered a serious head injury in a motorcycle crash and Warner suffered multiple concussions in the past. Ms. Killion concludes that "[t]he culture of denial and quick turnarounds runs too deep in the NFL to be changed by a commissioner’s mandate."

This SI column follows a recent article in The New Yorker, in which Ira Casson, who co-chairs an NFL committee on brain injury, said he isn’t sure what the solution is. "No one has any suggestions — assuming that you aren’t saying no more football, because let’s be honest, that’s not going to happen," he said.

Commissioner Goodell’s new policy addresses an issue that has long been part of the problem in the NFL: the onflict of interest posed by leaving the decision about when a concussed player should return to full contact to a doctor employed by the team and the league.

Ms. Killion points out that the culture of denial trickles down to college, high school and youth football. Every day, coaches and administrators struggle with medical issues far beyond their capability. At Cal, Jahvid Best has been sidelined for two weeks after suffering a horrific end zone collision and concussion. In Florida, Tim Tebow — who, in September, was knocked out cold and carted off the field vomiting — hasn’t missed a game (the Gators had a bye the week after Tebow suffered his concussion). But some observers think he hasn’t been the same since.

On high school fields around the country, kids are carted off with concussions every week. In New Jersey last year, a junior linebacker was cleared to play after suffering a concussion. He suffered another hit, which ended up killing him. His parents are suing the high school and their doctor.

The violent hits are celebrated. The early returns to the field are deemed courageous. The head traumas of star players are underplayed.

The NFL sets the tone for it all. Commissioner Goodell took a step forward this week. But there’s a long way to go.

2 Comments

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  1. NFL Fan says:
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    A message to the “something must be done” crowd:

    Be honest. “There’s a long way to go” is a euphemism for “we will not be satisfied until the federal government regulates every aspect of the NFL.”

    And only a dupe or blatant liar would have you believe that government-run-anything — with its decrees, mandates, and bureaucracy — is a more efficient undertaking than what is produced voluntarily in the free market (what’s left of it anyway).

    The discussion of how to deal with sports injuries is as much about freedom and personal responsibility as it is safety.

    Players and teams enter into contracts, each fully knowing the risks involved on and off the field.

    The only thing that should constitute a government intervention is when there is a breach of contract. In which case, the sides settle out of court, or one side sues the other (wherein, you don’t need Congress or the president to issue draconian mandates; the pertinent local or state judiciary would prosecute the case according to the laws already on the books).

    And what make us so sure that those team doctors are driven by the incentive to label a player ready when, in fact, the team’s coach and owner could very well lose that player for the season or longer? Do team doctors never lose their jobs over such irresponsible actions?

    Do we take every coach and front office as not only callous megalomaniacs but completely ignorant fools? Are they all so dull to the risks of re-inserting a dinged-up and dumbfounded player into the game, knowing that he is likely to get re-injured — or that a lawsuit could follow?

    If they are, then they deserve to lose games, fans, and perhaps their team — but NOT via the federal government mandate. More government intervention is not the answer.

    Public awareness is good. Public fleecing is bad.

    It is immoral and unconstitutional to use taxpayer funds to run this Utopian charade down that “slippery slope.”

    Keep the government out of the NFL.

  2. michael phelan says:
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    Dear NFL Fan:
    I couldn’t agree more that the federal government should stay out of this issue. I happen to thing the federal government should stay out of just about everything except national defense, infrastructure, and the monetary system. I do think the NFL should police itself and hope that it stops ignoring science and starts setting a better example for college and high school programs.
    M Phelan