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Wednesday whys: Tough questions on head trauma

League needs formal guidelines on allowing players to return. Andrew Brandt

Print This November 25, 2009, 10:56 AM EST

Today, Wednesday Whys asks questions about what has quickly become the off-field issue of the year in the NFL -- head trauma among players.

Why is the NFL taking new initiatives regarding head trauma, including requiring independent neurological specialists for each team?

I have repeatedly addressed the need to empower teams' medical staffs, both in-house and independent, to make decisions about players that are separate and apart from the interests of the football operation.

Players are not concerned about dementia that may occur many years later; they’re concerned about the next practice, the next game, the next paycheck and the next contract. These measures are a solid step toward protecting players from their natural instincts of wanting to play.

These initiatives originate from a series of recent actions, including:

(1) Congressional hearings during which Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith were put on the defensive about what’s being done regarding head trauma and brain injury;

(2) An NFL-commissioned study showing greater incidence of brain injury and memory loss for former NFL players than the rest of the population;

(3) A survey of NFL players showing overwhelming evidence of players feeling pressure, whether internal or external, to "play through" concussions;

(4) An increasing number of high-profile players experiencing concussions in recent weeks, including Brian Westbrook (two), Clinton Portis and the starting quarterbacks in last year's Super Bowl, Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger.

There are certainly many former players reading about these new guidelines who experience bouts of fogginess and memory loss and wish this policy was in place when they played. Time will tell if current players – especially star players -- are held out of play longer after concussions than they’ve been previously.

Why did the co-chairs of the NFL committee on concussions resign?

As with everything going on around this subject, it appears that it’s time for a change. The NFL did not like being put on the hot seat in front of Congress as a result of these findings. The NFLPA did not like the perception – whether real or perceived – that these doctors had ignored or discredited research on long-term effects of head injuries.

With the sweeping new changes and goals, it’s time to move on from these doctors to new ones who are blessed by both the league the union.

Why are there still many questions remaining about this issue?

Despite the list of items the NFL has released as measures to improve the problem, there are certainly more questions than answers at this point.

Independent doctors are in place for only about half the teams at this time. Meanwhile, there do not appear to be any formal guidelines for how long to keep a player out and for what level of head trauma. Obviously, players respond differently and many will want to play, saying they’re fine and experiencing no symptoms. Should they?

Should there be a minimum period of time that a player suffering a concussion should sit out? Is one week enough? Two? Three? Are Warner and Roethlisberger going to be ordered to sit out this week?

And what if a player does pass tests that show he has returned to his baseline? Does that mean he should be allowed to play? Or should it be baseline plus a week or two?

And what exactly is a mild concussion? To me, that’s a concussion that happens to someone else.

Why is the league discussing ways to reduce offseason contact and ways to reduce head trauma in practices?

This is a much-needed measure that will not only have strong public relations value but will be a chip in the bargaining process as well.

A longstanding irritant to former NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw was the amount of offseason contact work by teams. As Upshaw used to say, coaches would sit around in the offseason with nothing to do and couldn’t keep themselves from having players go out and hit each other.

Reducing the amount of contact in the offseason months will be embraced by the NFLPA and its constituency. The league is being very strategic here in offering an olive branch before getting down to the hard and substantive items for discussion.

Let me say this: The best news of all is that we are asking these questions and that awareness has been raised by Congress, the NFL, the NFLPA, the media, the fans and, most importantly, the neurological specialists. Now, if we could only do something about the sensationalism of bone-jarring collisions, including the opening animated sequence of Monday Night Football showing helmets crashing into each other and blowing up.

Why is the Matthew Stafford touchdown pass last Sunday a dangerous thing to glorify?

I’ve heard a fair bit of commentary in recent days about the courage and grit shown by Stafford – the next Bobby Layne? – as he threw the winning pass on Sunday with a separated shoulder. The back-story is that Stafford eluded the team's medical staff (as many as four doctors and trainers) to run back on the field and finish the game. Even Lions head coach Jim Schwartz joked about Stafford inserting himself back in the game against doctors' orders.

I know this wasn’t a head injury, but that doesn’t mean this behavior should be condoned. Stafford did exactly what the league is now legislating against with head injuries.

Let’s not glorify this. If we’re going to create some lore about Matthew Stafford evading the team doctors like they were onrushing linemen and playing when he shouldn't, doesn't that defeat the whole empowerment of medical staffs that we’re trying to create in football?

I wonder how the Detroit front office, coaches, trainers and doctors would have felt if Stafford was seriously injured on that play, causing career-altering harm to the highest-paid player (in guaranteed money) in the history of football? They wouldn't be laughing then.

And speaking of the Lions, my pet peeve Why of the Week...

Why do Detroit and Dallas continue to host Thanksgiving Day games?

I only answer I’ve heard is that they’ve always hosted the games and should continue to do so. The late Lamar Hunt would argue at league meetings to rotate the hosting of the games, but Hunt's pleas were met with indifference.

It sure seems like the Packers play in Detroit on Thanksgiving a lopsided amount. Two years ago this week, I was in Detroit for Thanksgiving for my third Turkey Day game in nine years with the Packers (2001, 2003, 2007). And, of course, the Pack travels to Detroit to play the Lions once again on Thanksgiving. Perhaps the attractive draw of the Packers is an easy way to have fans tune in to watch the Lions with no other NFL option.

The National Football Post wishes a Happy Thanksgiving to its readers and their families.

Join me for a chat today at 3:30 p.m. when I’ll answer questions about concussions and any other topics. See you then.

Follow me on Twitter: adbrandt

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