NFL concussion rules could ease pressure
New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita is glad to see the NFL changing its concussion policies. Why• Because, he figures, the league is finally getting around to saving players from themselves.
"You almost have to take it out of the players' hands, because we're not going to make the most responsible decision," Fujita said.
"If I was in that situation in a playoff game, and I was kind of dinged and not functioning very well on the sideline, I'd like to think that someone might look out for my best interest," he said, "because I don't think I'd do that for myself."
In dozens of interviews across the NFL this week, The Associated Press found that players voiced nearly unanimous support for the league's latest moves on head injuries. Like Fujita, they're grateful to have extra sets of eyes looking out for them — and they're relieved to have a buffer against peer pressure about missing games or practices.
Put another way: With league- and union-approved independent neurologists now assigned to all 32 clubs, and stricter return-to-play guidelines instituted Wednesday, players hope teammates will be less likely to question their tenacity when they're kept on the sideline with a concussion.
"One of the things that has been so hard in this league for so long is playing with injuries and what constitutes being 'tough' and being 'courageous' and what constitutes being stupid and hurting yourself for the long-term," said Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who sat out last weekend with a concussion. "Anything that eases that part of it is progress, because, again, there's a mentality in the locker room. ... Sometimes there needs to be an outside force helping."
As Atlanta Falcons center Todd McClure put it: "If you come out (of a game), you're seen as 'soft.' That's the way it is. I think any type of protection like that to keep a guy out for a game would be big."
Nearly 20 percent of the 160 NFL players surveyed Nov. 2-15 by the AP replied that they have hidden or played down the effects of a concussion. Half of that group said they've had at least one concussion playing football; 61 said they missed playing time because a head injury.
A handful of the players AP reporters spoke with this week wondered whether the NFL's latest efforts could cause some to be even more unwilling to let on when they feel concussion symptoms. If the league is going to force someone to miss game time, this line of thinking goes, then players might be more likely to try to hide a problem, particularly late in the season, with much at stake.
"It might make it worse. It could be a Super Bowl game or a playoff game, where 'this game means everything.' For me, it depends on how bad it would be," explained Miami Dolphins guard Donald Thomas, who said he's never had a concussion. "If I can't function and I won't be worth anything to the team, I'll say, 'I can't go.' But if a man feels he can go. ..."
After all, as Steelers linebacker James Farrior said: "It's just a natural reaction for you to fib a little bit and not give all the doctors all the information, because you want to go out there and play. You don't want them to come back and tell you you're not able to play."
The NFL hopes that's not a popular sentiment.
"That wouldn't be very smart," league spokesman Greg Aiello said in a telephone interview Friday. "Players need to understand that it's not their call. They should report the symptoms, and let the doctors handle it."
Farrior's teammate Hines Ward caused a stir last weekend when he suggested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger let the team down by sitting out with a concussion, forcing an inexperienced backup to start what turned out to be an overtime loss to the Ravens. Ward later apologized.
Roethlisberger and Warner — the starting QBs in last season's Super Bowl — are among several prominent players who missed games in recent weeks because of head injuries. They both sat out Sunday despite practicing in the run-up to the games.
Star running backs Brian Westbrook of the Eagles and Clinton Portis of the Redskins skipped multiple games because of concussions — Westbrook returned to action after missing time, then got hurt again, forcing him back to the sideline. Browns running back Jamal Lewis, who already had said this would be his final season, went on injured reserve Wednesday because of a head injury, closing his career.
Some players, such as Rams offensive lineman Jacob Bell, like the idea of the NFL being more proactive, even if new rules can affect personnel decisions.
"They need to do that, because as a player, you're not going to do it," Bell said. "You think, 'My headaches are gone. I can focus. I feel fine.' While in reality, there's still some stuff going on, and you don't know how long it's going to last."
Bell himself got a concussion in the preseason and missed the last three exhibition games because of it. When he returned to action, he had headaches for another week or so.
This week's games mark the first time that every team will have an outside doctor to consult on head injuries (the neurologists won't be at stadiums; they'll be advising in the recovery phase). They're also the first games to be played since commissioner Roger Goodell outlined new rules about what symptoms must disappear — including dizziness, memory loss, persistent headaches — before a player is allowed back on the field. The old standard essentially held out a player if he lost consciousness.
"They're really just being extra safe," Packers linebacker Brady Poppinga said, "and (you) have to give them credit for looking out for players."
Any further player-affecting moves on this issue by the league probably wouldn't come until the offseason, and some might have to be negotiated between owners and the players union in the collective bargaining process. Goodell met last week with competition committee co-chair Rich McKay to begin evaluating possible rules changes, and a panel headed by John Madden is examining reducing offseason work and limiting helmet use and contact in practice and training camps.
"It's on the radar. So that's progress. Has anything substantially been done yet• I don't think so. It's going to take time," said Ravens center Matt Birk, who has agreed to donate his brain for scientific study when he dies. "But it's great that there's a dialogue going on."
If the culture is changing — as the league insists, and many players concur — the transformation is hardly complete.
Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn got a concussion Sunday against the Jets, an injury his team didn't announce until midweek, when he missed practice. Still hounded by a headache days later, Munnerlyn said he had heard about the altered return-to-play guidelines.
"I don't like that," he said Wednesday. "I want to try to play this weekend."
Asked why, Munnerlyn replied: "Because it's football. It's my life. I love football so much. I've got to go out there and help my team win."
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick says he had one concussion in the NFL, when he was with the Falcons in 2004. He was back in action the very next week.
Does Vick wish he hadn't returned to the field of play right away?
"No, I didn't regret it," he replied, "because we won."