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Starkey: Ben, Hines and head injuries

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Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009

Steelers stars Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward likely don't think of themselves as pioneers in the study of NFL head injuries, but the two might have done as much for the cause last week as a team of doctors could do in a decade.

Ward unwittingly shed light on a root source of the problem — player ignorance.

Roethlisberger enacted a necessary part of any meaningful solution — player honesty.

Ignorance is not meant as an insult here. Ward simply showed a lack of awareness as he discussed Roethlisberger's concussion with NBC's Bob Costas on Sunday night.

In doing so, Ward provided an important public service: He gave a rare glimpse of the mentality that has long pervaded NFL locker rooms, where players shrug off head injuries and sometimes question teammates who don't.

It was a stunning interview on many levels, but absolutely reflective of how many players think. Consider that in a recent Associated Press survey of 160 NFL players, 30 admitted to hiding or playing down the effects of a concussion.

"I've lied to a couple of doctors, saying, 'I'm straight; I feel good,' when I know that I'm not," Ward said.

The NFL, in its campaign to increase concussion awareness, should put Ward's words on a billboard and announce, "This is the attitude that must change."

Another of Ward's comments stood out. Again, he was just being honest when he said, "I don't think guys really worry about the future while they're playing in the NFL."

That is understandable. It's the same mindset that can lead to use of performance-enhancing drugs. Players have a small window in which to earn a living and either don't know of possible consequences or ignore them.

But when it comes to head injuries, they need to know stories like that of nine-year NFL veteran Tom McHale, who died last May of a drug overdose at age 45. Boston University researchers said a biopsy of McHale's brain showed a degenerative condition linked to repeated head trauma.

Similar cases have been documented, though it's a small sampling.

The NFL's stance is that there is no scientific evidence linking recurring concussions to long-term brain damage. Any sane person would have to wonder, especially if they have stood on the sidelines for any part of an NFL game and witnessed all the high-speed wrecks.

In any case, player honesty is imperative. In its attempt to keep players from returning from concussions too soon, the NFL has enacted a policy that requires every team to use an independent neurologist or neurosurgeon, but that won't matter if players hide their symptoms.

Doctors told Roethlisberger to report any symptoms as he practiced last week, coming off his concussion in Kansas City. He did just that, reporting exercise-induced headaches. If he'd lied, team neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon would have had no basis for suggesting to coach Mike Tomlin that Roethlisberger not play.

A similar situation was unfolding in Arizona, where Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner told doctors he still was experiencing symptoms from a concussion he'd sustained in the previous game. Warner, who also sat out Sunday, later told the Arizona Republic that he wrestled with whether to be forthright with doctors.

Roethlisberger still was lobbying on Saturday to play in Sunday's game, raising the question of whether he'll be as willing to tell the truth next time.

Tomlin understands the inner battle players wage.

"I think there's a code that comes with playing tough games like football that kind of conflict, at times, with things that are of utmost importance, like head injuries," Tomlin said Tuesday. "I think continued education and exposure is the key."

He's right — and two of his players, whether they know it or not, provided important teaching moments last week.

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