Overnight the NFL has evolved. It has gone from a league where you man up and go ahead and suit up if you are only dinged up (not injured), to a league in which you inform your team physician, trainer, or coach that you are experiencing concussion related side effects and therefore will be benched for at least a week. And if I understood ESPN’s Chris Mortensen last night, the NFL has ruled that ‘a player who has had a concussion must be symptom free for 7 days before they are cleared to play again’.
That is a huge change, both in terms of NFL philosophy and at the core of what is in the make-up of a NFL player. Pittsburgh Steelers WR Hines Ward’s pregame comments regarding QB Ben Roethlisberger sum up this change perfectly. Ward told NBC, according to a written transcript provided by the network:
"This game is almost like a playoff game. It's almost a must-win. I could see some players or teammates questioning like, 'It's just a concussion. I've played with a concussion before.' It's almost like a 50-50 tossup in the locker room: Should he play? Shouldn't he play? It's really hard to say.
"I've been out there dinged up, the following week, got right back out there. Ben practiced all week. He split time with Dennis Dixon. And then to find out that he's still having some headaches and not playing and it came down to the doctors didn't feel that they were going to clear him or not--it's hard to say unless you're the person itself.
"I've lied to a couple of doctors saying I'm straight, I feel good when I know that I'm not really straight. I don't think guys really worry about the future while they're playing currently in the NFL.... Trust me, the players want to go out there because these games you don't get back. You're never going to get this Baltimore-Pittsburgh game back. This is a big game. Unfortunately Ben can't play, so the 53 other guys have to rally the team and see if we can win one down here."
On the surface, it does seem Ward is calling out Big Ben; Late in the season, Pittsburgh is in a new position of having to fight for a play-off spot. In recent years, by week 12 they had a play-off spot locked up and were at this point playing for home field advantage/bye weeks. So there is a sense of urgency, and that is reflected in the comments above. But if you dig deeper into these comments and the recent track record of the Steeler’s organization you begin to get a little confused.
Big Ben is one of the leaders of this team. Second only to Tom Brady, he has two Superbowl rings. He has come back from a devastating off season injury to silence doubters about his toughness. Yet Hines seems at some level to be challenging his manhood? It just doesn’t seem right. We also know that Ward is the ultimate tough team player. Not only is he a prolific pass catcher, he also has the reputation of being one of the NFL’s most elite blockers at this position too. That alone defines toughness. So what is his beef?
I think what is being expressed is much more fundamental. What Ward is railing about is the very nature of how players are trained, groomed and conditioned throughout their football careers, harkening back to Pop Warner football itself. If you can suit up, you play the game. And let me tell you that philosophy still holds true today. My 11 year old nephew recently got a pretty good licking in Pop Warner football this season and developed a really nice purple and black bruise. Clearly in pain, he still wanted to and did play the next weekend. His coaches even praised his pain tolerance and in doing so rewarded his choice and behavior.
So I am taking all of this into consideration and realize that even though the NFL is acting (or reacting) to the newly available data on concussions, it is only a first step. Now comes the long and difficult task of selling the reality of what that data translates to, educating players, coaches, organizations etc., and changing a fundamental mindset. No easy task that. All Hines has done is openly and honestly resisted this change. And he is only one player. Good luck NFL.