Thursday, December 3, 2009

NFL Update: The Year of the Concussion Discussion

Hines Ward has always been one of my favorite NFL players. I love the way he smiles so much -- it is jarring sometimes to see him get up from an intense hit and look like a kid at Christmas.

I also have always thought that his leadership is one of the reasons the Steelers have stayed so good for so long -- unlike a number of veteran players on the Redskins (for instance), Ward plays hard the entire game and does not showboat. He's kind of like a smiling (and shorter) Art Monk.

Last Sunday, Ward (implicitly) criticized Ben Roethlisberger for sitting out of the Steelers game because of the lingering effects of a concussion from a prior game. Here's a portion of Ward's take on Big Ben, from an interview with Bob Costas:
"I've been out there dinged up; the following week, got right back out there. Ben practiced all week. He split time with Dennis Dixon. And then to find out that he's still having some headaches and not playing and it came down to the doctors didn't feel that they were going to clear him or not -- it's hard to say…I've lied to a couple of doctors saying I'm straight, I feel good when I know that I'm not really straight."
Ward's statement illustrates perfectly the "play through the hurt" mentality of NFL players. He has probably done a service to the league (and to the players, more specifically) by articulating what usually goes unsaid: that you run a serious risk of being considered a wimp if you don't play through injuries.

The reaction to the statement has been very negative, and the fallout has given even more momentum to the NFL's change in attitude about protecting its players. Even today, Alan Schwarz of the NYT reports a change in the league's rules:
The National Football League on Wednesday announced that it would impose its most stringent rules to date on managing concussions, requiring players who exhibit any significant sign of concussion to be removed from a game or practice and be barred from returning the same day.
I will definitely remember 2009 as the year when society's perspective about football changed: the John Madden focus on crushing hits and bruisers who never take a play off will continue, I'm certain, but there's clearly going to be more attention from here on about the dangers to players' long-term health.
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In terms of the games, I'm unfortunately relegated to my standard late-season routine of rooting against the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles rather than rooting for the Skins. The Giants have lost 5 out of 6 and could fall out of playoff contention if they lose to Dallas this weekend.

Dallas 8-3
Philly 7-4
N.Y. 6-5
Skins 3-8

The Saints crushed the Patriots last weekend (Drew Brees had 5 TD's; for the year he has 27 touchdowns and 9 interceptions) and -- along with Indianapolis -- remain undefeated:

New Orleans 11-0
Atlanta 6-5
Carolina 4-7
Tampa Bay 1-10

Minnesota is also playing great (Favre continues to impress and Adrian Peterson provides the power), but I think if New Orleans can get home field through the playoffs they'll represent the NFC.

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