NFL's Change in Stance on Concussions Encouraging, Overdue

T.J. DoneganCorrespondent INovember 23, 2009

BALTIMORE - NOVEMBER 22:  Matt Birk #77 of the Baltimore Ravens collects his helmet after an unsuccessful goalline run against the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium on November 22, 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Colts defeated the Ravens 17-15. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
Larry French/Getty Images

Jay Glazer of Fox Sports broke news this past weekend that the NFL will begin to require that teams consult independent neurologists or neurosurgeons prior to clearing players to play medically when reporting symptoms of a head injury.

But while it's another in a long lines of moves by the league and its franchises to curtail the impact of concussions, there was some question as to whether the league is really on board regarding the protection of its players.

The program has already hit the ground running, with the Union's medical director Dr. Thom Mayer and the league's medical adviser approving independent doctors for half of the league's teams, according to an Associated Press report.

It's an encouraging sign. Concussions, like most injuries in the NFL, are not viewed as serious by the players as medical evidence suggests they should be.

Head injuries, in particular, can lead to lifelong neurological problems. While a career may only last three or four years, the problems from concussions can be far-reaching.

There is a great deal left to be hashed out, as detailed in the above report, including the logistics of how the neurologists will be paid, whether they'll be present at the games and on the sidelines, and just what their authority will be limited to.

But it's clear that the league and the union are no longer just paying lip service to the damage concussions can bring, especially if the neurologists have no other allegiance than to the players' health.

Nobody is suggesting that team doctors are paid hacks doing the owner's dirty work—this isn't Any Given Sunday—but there is at least a conflict of interest when a doctor paid by the team has to tell a star player he can't play because he may risk further head injury.

At the very least, by agreeing to allow independent neurological experts to make medical decisions that impact the fate of its franchises, the league is making a tacit admission that their could possibly be a scenario in which a team doctor is too close to the team to make the right call.

The league's various independent advisors—everyone from John Madden to Mike Ditka—have also bent Roger Goodell's ear over other issues, like preventing concussions during the week by perhaps forcing no-helmet practices.

It's an interesting proposition. Coming from a rugby background, I can tell you that you don't need a helmet to tackle somebody.

Football isn't a tacking sport, though. It's a collision sport. Watch any safety in the league make a hit and you're rarely to see any sort of fundamental wrapping up.

In the hands of a defensive player, the helmet is the most dangerous weapon a football player has at his disposal, and you better believe players are coached to use it.

I think football should look to its long-lost cousin rugby for some more answers. In a sport that at times looks like one 80-minute long session of "kill the man with the ball," rugby has long implemented several rules that require safe play.

They're simply really:

A tackler must wrap up.

A tackle must be on his feet.

You can't play the ball unless you're on your feet.

These rules require a player to be on his feet and capable of protecting himself whenever he is involved in the play.

They're simple, but they keep rugby a relatively safe sport. I've watched way too many football players pick up a rugby ball and try to barrel through somebody, helmet-less head leading the way, somehow imagining that is the proper, safe way to approach a group of people trying to bring you down.

But this is the way our football players are coached: To rely on the helmet, to use it as your first line of defense, a weapon.

I'm not saying outlawing the helmet makes sense. I'm not advocating we return to the days of leather wraps and tiny shoulder pads. I'm just saying that those involved with the game of football—fans, players, coaches, executives, writers, owners—should think more critically about what we want from the game and what is more important, player safety, or an extra satisfying *crack* on Sunday.

I'm glad the league is already taking the right steps to ensure that, for their part, they're on the right side of the debate.