Today I found a story by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Michael Sanserino about NFL players and concussions, stemming from Ben Roethlisberger’s head injury during the Steelers’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on November 22. He was cleared to start against Baltimore two days ago after receiving a battery of tests all week, but the morning before the game, was removed from the lineup after feeling headaches.
With Charlie Batch already out of the lineup for four to six weeks with a broken wrist (an injury that took place in the same game as Roethlisberger’s), the Steelers had to turn to third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon, who threw for 145 yards, threw a touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes, and ran for a touchdown in a 20-17 overtime loss to the Ravens.
But after the game, it was tough to tell which topic was being discussed more: a performance that exceeded expectations from a kid who had thrown only one NFL pass before this week, the Steelers’ fourth blown lead in the fourth quarter this season, or the fallout from wide receiver Hines Ward’s comments on the team’s feelings on whether or not Roethlisberger should have played. Ward said he and his teammates were “50-50” about Roethlisberger playing with a concussion, which has been his fourth during his career.
Recently, the NFL has taken action to better address the issue of brain injuries and how they affect players in the short and long term. But given the history of so many players that have played through injuries both severe and minor, the question being raised now is whether or not the “tough guy” culture of the league is still there.
With so many brain injuries finally coming to light, I think it’s no longer a question of whether or not players are still tough guys. It’s about whether or not players are conscious and responsible.
I remember being moved by the story of John Mackey, a Hall of Fame tight end who played most of his career with the Baltimore Colts and played in Super Bowl V with Johnny Unitas. He is now 65, suffering from frontotemporal dementia, and living in a full-time assisted living facility.
I saw a piece about him on 60 Minutes recently, where they observed him and his wife in their daily living. It was exceptionally hard to see a man who was once considered a physical specimen and a world-class athlete barely able to get around, much less to simple things that we take for granted, like speaking and eating without assistance.
When the NFL Players’ Association was initially contacted about helping with the cost of Mackey’s care, they refused to pay a disability income because there was no proven link between long-term brain injuries and playing football. Eventually they established the “88 plan,” taken from Mackey’s jersey number: it provides former players with $88,000 annually for nursing home care and $50,000 for adult day care. This initiative was a major blow for the cause of NFL players and the need for care to treat their long-term injuries later on in life.
However, it took even longer to address the potential of said injuries during the players’ careers. But now things are changing. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has even testified before Congress about the league’s attention toward concussions and the eventual cases of dementia and depression that have now been linked to repeated brain trauma.
The list of players whose careers and lives have been severely altered due to brain injuries is growing at an alarming rate: Mackey, former Steelers Merrill Hoge and Justin Strzelczyk, and former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters are only a few of the more recognizable cases. The difference is, Hoge is the only one of these four who hasn’t been permanently affected because his diagnosis of post-concussion syndrome was found early enough to convince him to retire before the damage to his brain became permanent.
Strzelczyk and Waters found themselves in far worse circumstances. Waters was found dead in his home three years ago after a gunshot to the head, which was later ruled as a suicide. University of Pittsburgh neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu studied Waters’ brain tissue and determined that it was so badly damaged it had deteriorated into that of an 85-year-old man with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, with one of the symptoms being severe depression. Waters was 44.
Strzelczyk died in a car accident on September 30, 2004, when his car hit a tank truck at 90 mph while trying to evade police. An autopsy revealed that Strzelczyk suffered from severe brain damage, likely from injuries sustained while playing football. Other examples of severe brain damage later in life due to untreated football injuries are Terry Long and Mike Webster, also former Steelers. Webster died of a heart attack, but Long, like Waters, took his own life.
All things considered, the fact that the Steelers removed Roethlisberger from the lineup when the headaches occured the day before the game is commendable. He had already suffered severe head trauma in his 2006 motorcycle accident where he was riding without a helmet, and later suffered a concussion in a game against the Atlanta Falcons that following season. There has to be a limit where the ability for a player to be medically cleared to play takes a back seat to that player’s health; it now appears that the league is taking that limit more seriously.
The culture throughout football is that it is a tough man’s sport; it is a violent game that takes a great deal of strength and speed to excel. It also takes a great deal of mental and physical toughness in order to participate, much less excel.
But when is the line drawn between toughness and responsibility?
It would be easy for me to point fingers and say the league has acted irresponsibly for so many years, or to say their actions now are way too late, but the fact that now measures are being taken at all is a very progressive step forward. I only hope that players use the options now available to them to make responsible decisions. It’s no longer their careers at stake.
It’s their lives.