Ben's Right: Concussion Nothing To Play With

November 29, 2009|By Peter Schmuck

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appeared to be in a fog as he left the field after taking another head shot in last Sunday's overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. But he practiced all week and seemed intent on playing tonight until reports surfaced this weekend that he was still feeling the effects of his latest concussion.

Big Ben apparently will listen to his injured brain instead of his warrior heart and let third-string QB Dennis Dixon start against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

That obviously is the right decision.

Roethlisberger has suffered four concussions during the past few years - including the one from a serious motorcycle accident in 2006 - and there is a growing body of research that indicates a cumulative negative effect on the brain from multiple concussions.

He said all week that he felt OK and was not worried about the increased risk of further brain injury by returning to the field so soon after he took a knee to the helmet at Arrowhead Stadium, but he really wasn't the right guy to ask.

Roethlisberger is one of those players who would run through a wall to win a football game, which is a quality that is understandably valued in the rough-and-tumble NFL.

He would play with a skull fracture if he could get it taped up, which is why his opinion shouldn't have played any part in a reasoned decision on when he should return to action.

The NFL apparently agrees, and a new concussion policy is being put into place that requires team doctors to add an independent neurologist or neurosurgeon to their medical staffs. That independent specialist reportedly will have the power to prevent a player from returning to the field for practice or games until it is safe to do so.

The policy, which is expected to go into full effect in the next few weeks, will reduce any appearance of conflict of interest when a team's medical staff evaluates a player after a concussion and reduce the possibility of a star player talking a team doctor into letting him take the field when he shouldn't.

That decision needs to be made by someone with no stake in the outcome of the season.

"That's a great first step," said Dr. Bill Howard of Union Memorial Hospital's Arnold Palmer Sports Health Center. "I truly believe the NFL and team physicians and owners want to get an answer to this problem. They want to have an answer, and the doctors and scientists are looking for an answer, but they don't know how to [prevent most concussions] without changing the game completely."

Meanwhile, the NFL remains conflicted about the image of the sport and the long-term safety of the players.

The league has toughened rules against helmet hits - particularly when defensive players target quarterbacks and receivers - but has come under criticism from some players and fans for going too far in its attempt to temper the violent nature of the game.

After the Ravens' loss to the New England Patriots, for instance, linebacker Terrell Suggs complained that the league's obsession with player safety was turning it into a game of "two-hand touch."

Let's be honest. The violent nature of the NFL is one of the main reasons it has become the most popular of the four major American team sports.

There's nothing like a big hit to get the crowd going, and the testosterone-fueled culture pushes players to prove their toughness by shaking off any injury that doesn't leave them unable to function on the field.

Roethlisberger is a gamer. He wanted to play. That's admirable, but potentially self-destructive to a degree that requires the outside intervention the NFL is getting ready to impose.

The league ought to go a step further and require a determinate recovery period after a concussion is confirmed.

The player who walks unsteadily off the field and asks the trainer the same question three times in a row should be forced to sit out for a minimum period of time.

I'm not smart enough to say how long that period should be, but I doubt you're going to find many neurologists who think it's reasonable for a person who has had multiple concussions to come back and risk an additional one in just one week.

Roethlisberger never should have considered going out there tonight, and I'm not just saying that because his absence improves the Ravens' chances of reaching the playoffs (though it probably will).

He was right to take a knee - and I'm not talking about the kind that left him seeing stars last week.

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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