Handling Steelers' Big Ben's Head With Care

New Concussion Policy Issued

Friday, December 04, 2009
By Jennifer A. Morrell
Steelers Fever Columnist

In October, a congressional hearing on NFL head injuries took place, addressing growing concerns that the NFL has created a culture where players do not report injuries to team doctors. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was questioned before the House Judiciary Committee over the NFL's efforts to protect players from head injuries.

Ben RoethlisbergerThis topic has been a hot-button issue since a study commissioned by the NFL revealed in September that Alzheimer's disease (or similar memory-related diseases) appears to have been diagnosed in the league's former players much more often than in the national population, including a rate of 19-times the normal rate for men aged 30 to 49.

If any player is a candidate for possible complications from head injuries down the road, it's Ben Roethlisberger. Simply take the "dings" (as they are so affectionately called by NFL players) that Big Ben has received during the course of his pro football career, and multiply them by his 2006 head-on motorcycle crash that nearly killed him. I am obviously not a doctor, but doesn't common sense tell us he might face a few migraines in the future? Maybe we should be a little extra sensitive to the condition of his noggin.

In case you have been under a rock, Hines Ward has been in the sporting news as of late because of comments he made that seemed to question Big Ben's toughness, and maybe even his commitment to the team. Before the Nov. 29 game against the Ravens, an interview with Ward aired on "Football Night in America," in which he said:

"This game is almost like a playoff game. It's almost a must-win. I could see some players or teammates questioning, like 'It's just a concussion. I've played with a concussion before. I've been out there dinged up; the following week, got right back out there.' Ben practiced all week. 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. Unless you're the person ... I've lied to a couple of doctors saying I'm straight, I feel good when I know that I'm not really straight."

Upon first hearing this quote, I gave Ward the benefit of the doubt. He has never struck me as the unreasonable type. But I can see how people could have taken his comments at face value and become upset - and they did.

To my delight, the frustration of many also started conversations and opened communication about players playing with head injuries (and other serious injuries). Talk radio and television sports programming were littered with ex-players who jumped to Roethlisberger's defense, reminding us regular folks that these NFL players only have a decade or so in the league. Once they retired or can no longer find a place on a team, they have the rest of their lives to contend with. Usually, they have wives and children who need them and who want a coherent husband and dad for the next 50 years.

The moral of the story is that Ward apologized to an admittedly "hurt" Roethlisberger, and that was after he took measures to clarify his original comments:

"A lot of guys didn't find out until Saturday (about Roethlisberger's status), so it was very shocking to a lot of guys on this team. That was the more frustrating thing about anything, going in to it. A lot of guys didn't find out anything until Saturday morning."

I'm not sure this helped Ward in the eyes of the public, but regardless, I am glad the topic of "playing hurt" was showcased. It needs to be discussed more, rather than swept under a rug woven from Cortisone.

NFL guidelines are going into effect this week that will create stricter policies for returning to games or practices after head injuries. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo Dec. 3 stating that a player who gets a concussion should not return to action on the same day, if he shows an inability to remember assignments or plays, a gap in memory, persistent dizziness or persistent headaches. The memo also says players "are to be encouraged to be candid with team medical staffs and fully disclose any signs or symptoms that may be associated with a concussion."

The new policy also states: "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."

So I say, good for Big Ben's doctors for making him sit out the Ravens game. Dennis Dixon did a fine job for a rookie, the loss to the Ravens stunk to high heaven, and a reality check was delivered. Lemonade from lemons...