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Kovacevic: Solving sports' big headache

| Monday, Dec. 19, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO — It's terribly telling, I suppose, that there's a thing called The Concussion Blog. It's an online entity that tracks head injuries and brain trauma across sports, it's loaded with numbers and narratives, and it has to be Googled to be believed.

Here's one timely slice: Heading into NFL action Sunday, 186 players had been reported by their teams to have concussions this season, and achieving 200 will represent a league record.

Well, there are an average of 10 new cases every Sunday, so that probably means the Steelers and San Francisco 49ers only need to come up with four more in their Monday night tete-a-tete at Candlestick Park to make history.

Bring your own confetti.

Concussions are the frightening new frontier for sports, especially for football and hockey and far beyond the high-profile travails of Sidney Crosby. And the trend won't begin to reverse until ...

1. There are black-and-white rules

As long as we waste time doing frame-by-frame dissections of James Harrison's hits, or wondering if David Krejci really had it in his heart to elbow Crosby, the head shots in the NFL and NHL will continue to mount.

Responsibility for a head shot must fall on the offending party. It's the only way to change the culture at all levels of sports. Stop trying to read minds. Stop creating exceptions to the rules.

If you grab a facemask in the NFL, a flag flies. No one asks if your fingers got caught by accident. In the NHL, a high stick that draws blood is a double-minor even if you're looking the other way. The athletes are made responsible for avoiding those dangerous plays.

But we're analyzing ramming someone's head?

2. Mike Wallace changes helmets

I'm picking on the Steelers' dynamic wide receiver only because, in our talk on this topic last week, he confessed that he refuses to try new, safer helmets that have been offered to him for years now.

"They're like space helmets," Wallace said of the size and look. "Not for me. I need every edge."

That's fair from the athletic standpoint. Wallace is a deep threat, and every step is precious. Most athletes think that way about changing equipment, actually. In the NHL, Hall of Famer Mark Messier's current safe-helmet initiative is being almost completely ignored.

But that's why the leagues must impose safer equipment, forcefully and universally, as baseball just did with batting helmets that can absorb fastballs up to 120 mph. If Wallace is going to be slower in the name of preserving his brain, make it a level field.

3. The field expands

This one's radical, I'll admit.

Athletes are bigger, faster and stronger than even 20 years ago, but they play on the same-dimension surfaces as a century ago. Makes no sense, except maybe with the mound and infield in baseball.

How many vicious collisions would be avoided if NFL players enjoyed all the elbow room of CFL fields?

How much harder would it be for an NHL defenseman to line up an open-ice check on an Olympic-sized rink?

Neither will happen, but ...

"It would make the game safer, for sure," the Penguins' James Neal said. "I'm not in favor. I've played on those big rinks in the World Juniors, and it's boring. Really slows it down. But safer, yeah."

4. Diagnoses improve

Crosby was cleared by an ImPACT test last week but is out again with concussions. The Penguins' Kris Letang was sent to the NHL's new "quiet room" in Montreal, then cleared to return to the same game. Now, he's out indefinitely, too.

Doesn't take a medical degree to see these methods aren't enough.

When in doubt, do as the Steelers did two weeks ago in Kansas City: Troy Polamalu was dazed after his head struck an opponent's knee. He bounced back up, but the team's medical staff sprinted out to the field, took him to the sideline and kept him there all night even though he showed no further symptoms.

There's a lot of idle talk these days about erring on the side of caution. That's doing it.

5. There is more honesty

Here's all you need to know about how bravado hinders diagnosing a concussion: According to a Mayo Clinic study last year, the NCAA sport with the highest concussion rate — 2.72 per player hours -- was women's hockey, followed by football at 2.34 and men's hockey at 1.47. And women's hockey forbids body-checking.

Don't overthink it. The women are more honest than men — as in most walks of life, right• — and, thus, more likely to divulge concussion symptoms.

No problem gets solved without first being recognized.

And no hard solution comes without hard action.

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