NEW YORK (AP) — A high-profile rookie quarterback gets slammed in the side of the head and his Super Bowl-winning coach describes him as “shaken up.”
An All-Pro receiver admits to getting “my bell rung pretty good” as being part of the game and, if a player gets concussed, “you've got to keep on playing.”
NFL executives want to change the culture of the league — and all of football — to reduce head injuries. So far this season, there's evidence it's going to be a tough road.
“The challenge is everywhere and for everyone in the sport,” said perennial Pro Bowl defensive back Troy Vincent, now a league executive. “It's a shared responsibility and a personal accountability when you participate in this game, no matter what level.
“A culture change must come on the grassroots level, in Pop Warner, in high schools, in the colleges and in the NFL. It has to be the parents, the coaches, the players anyone in charge so player safety becomes a learned behavior.”
League executives seem more apt to claim progress and insist their perspective is not influenced by the 3,500 ex-players suing the NFL for mishandling or ignoring head injuries. Players are more ambivalent, critical of the league yet also giving it credit — and recognizing they play a risky game.
“I think a lot of that by the NFL is done just to
protect their own hides,” said Broncos linebacker Keith Brooking, now in his 15th NFL season. “I mean, obviously with the lawsuits and the media attention that concussions are getting currently, it's all about the dollar, it's a smart business move to be proactive in that.
But, I mean, in return, what does that equal? It equals taking care of guys more and, as far as the long-term effects, hopefully there will be a difference made as far as our long-term health goes.
“It's positive. But whether it's done from the right initiative I don't know.”
The NFL insists its motives are pure and believes its health and safety policies are working. It cites the thousands of dollars in fines handed out for unsportsmanlike conduct or unnecessary roughness having caused a decline in the number of such hits.
“Guys are going to hit the head of opponents or use their head fewer and fewer times,” says Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations who oversees league discipline for safety issues. “It's definitely encouraging and it's not just occasionally making adjustments but it's in every game.”
One thing the players' union is doing is requesting that the NFL place independent neurologists on the sidelines of every game and include them as part of the initial concussions examination protocol.
For now, when a player shows signs of head trauma, immediate examinations are conducted by team physicians, with the NFL encouraging a conservative, “safety first,” approach.
Obvious symptoms of a concussion are listed by the NFL as loss of consciousness; unresponsiveness; disorientation or an inability to respond appropriately to questions; amnesia; headache, nausea and/or dizziness; abnormal neurological findings; or progressive, persistent or worsening symptoms.
An independent neurologist is generally not at the game and is used to examine a player diagnosed with a concussion to determine when he can return to play.
A major obstacle to a culture change, though, is what one agent calls the players' “gladiator mentality.” Calvin Johnson, the Lions' star receiver who got his “bell rung,” added that he can't “become afraid to go across the middle.”
After Robert Griffin III, Washington's scintillating playmaker, took a hard (but legal) shot to the head and came up woozy, his reaction was straight out of the warrior playbook.
“You want to play and your survival instincts take over,” he said, “and it just shows that I care about this team and I didn't want to leave them hanging.”
That outlook, and coach Mike Shanahan's use of such an innocuous euphemism to describe Griffin's condition, worry observers inside the league and out.
“We are the NFL and we should be setting the standard for safety and be the symbol for children,” said Dr. Thom Mayer, the players union medical director. “If we are serious about this, having a player say what RG3 said, what symbol does that send to youngsters?”