Head Injuries in Sports: Lesson's from Sidney Crosby, Troy Polamalu, Marc Savard

Ryan O'Leary@BR0LearyFeatured Columnist IJanuary 13, 2012

TORONTO, CANADA - DECEMBER 4: Marc Savard #91 of the Boston Bruins shoots before game action against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre December 4, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages / Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

The Bruins' Marc Savard is no stranger to the president’s suite at TD Bank North Garden, cheering his Beantown teammates night in and night out, donning a suit rather than the iconic spoked "B" of the Boston sweater.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu, on the other hand, enjoys unrivaled fame as the NFL’s premier free safety.

Savard will likely never lace up the skates in an NHL game ever again—enduring the never-ending nightmare of a promising career cut short as a result of suffering multiple severe concussions.

Unfortunately, Savard’s concussions are well documented—the first, a crushing blindside blow compliments of Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke on March 7, 2010, forcing the Bruins star from the ice for nearly a year.

After making a successful comeback, “Savvy,” as he is affectionately called by the Boston faithful, would experience his darkest day—a second major concussion on Jan. 22, 2011, against Colorado—his head slammed into the corner boards by former teammate Matt Hunwick.

Meanwhile, Polamalu repeatedly and recklessly launches himself like a missile (his trademark hair in tow) at opposing ball carriers, doing whatever it takes to thwart opposing offenses.

Polamalu knows no abandon—this despite incurring seven diagnosed concussions during his career—high school, college and NFL—and potentially numerous others gone unreported or undetected.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 19: Kendall Hunter #32 of the San Francisco 49ers looks to put a move on Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steeler at Candlestick Park on December 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won the game 20-3. (Photo by
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images


Just this season, Polamalu incurred two concussions in a six-week stretch, the first in mid-October and the second against the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 27.

Not surprisingly, Polamalu played the next week against division rival Cincinnati.

Both Savard and Polamalu are talented athletes in their respective sports. Yet, the similarities abruptly end there.

One can be described as the impetus for the NHL’s rigid concussion protocol while the other embodies the NFL’s do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do posture toward head injuries.

Not unexpected, both leagues possess rigid concussion detection and prevention protocol.

In the NHL, "Rule 48" is the be all, end all when it comes to head safety, outlining when and how players should be checked. Any deviation incurs strict suspensions and fines from the NHL’s head of discipline and 21-year league veteran Brendan Shanahan.

By extension, the rules for handling a suspected concussion are very clearly laid out.

According to an NHL release on Mar. 16, 2011:

“players suspected of having a concussion will be removed from the game and sent to a quiet place free from distraction so they can be examined by the on-site team physician. The physician uses the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool test to evaluate the player. Symptoms include loss of consciousness, motor incoordination or balance problems, a blank or vacant look, etc.”


Before the new rule, team physicians monitored players in the bench area, often turning a blind eye and irresponsibly allowing players to re-enter game action.

The NFL also implemented a new protocol after the 2011 season which, “combines a symptom checklist, a limited neurological examination including a cognitive evaluation, and a balance assessment,” according to league officials.

Of course, the NFL has other safeguards in place to ensure player safety, including changes to kickoffs, increased quarterback protection and stricter rules on hitting defenseless players.

While both leagues have penned nearly identical concussion standards, the NHL is way out in front of the NFL in terms of rules adherence.

Case in point: Sidney Crosby. The “Next One” is still on the shelf after making a heroic comeback earlier this season, but then suffering a setback after colliding with teammate Chris Kunitz in an early December game against the Bruins.

Some think Crosby is just fine and could play if he had to, but the mere fact that Crosby, the Penguins and the NHL are playing it extremely safe proves the NHL takes concussions and long-term health very seriously.

When juxtaposed with the Cleveland Browns' handling of Colt McCoy, the NFL hypocrisy is exposed. McCoy took a shattering (though illegal) helmet-to-helmet hit from the Steelers' James Harrison and clearly “got his bell rung.”

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 5:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the Boston Bruins on December 5, 2011 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images


McCoy came out of the game for a short period, but quickly went back under center, exposing himself to the potential of a second, traumatic brain injury, the most dangerous kind.

Sure, guys like Polamalu and McCoy are still playing and enjoying the limelight, while Savard and Crosby are sidelined. But the light of professional stardom could go very dark for McCoy and Polamalu with severe brain injury very likely in retirement.

It is a harsh assessment, but reality nonetheless. Just ask the rabble of veterans suing the league for its handling of their head injuries during their playing days.

The NFL does not need a rules adjustment; it needs an attitude adjustment—say, one similar to the NHL’s serious posture toward concussions.

Why? Because, the mind is a terrible thing to waste.


Ryan O'Leary is a researcher and writer for Bleacher Report's Video Production Department with seven years experience in the sports industry. Ryan covered the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Hockey Tournament with CTV and the 2011 IIHF World Championships with the NBC Sports Channel. He was also a member of NBC's 2008 Olympic Coverage in Beijing. Ryan resides in Connecticut and supports the Pittsburgh Penguins, San Francisco Giants and San Francisco 49ers from afar.


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