Macho attitude undermines concussion policies

It didn’t take long for all of the effort and hard work the NFL has put into upgrading the league’s concussion policies to come apart.

Roethlisberger (left) talks to replacement starter, Dennis Dixon, during Sunday's game.
(Gail Burton/AP Photo)

One big game was all we needed.

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward(notes) put a hit on commissioner Roger Goodell’s efforts the way Ward delivered a massive blow in breaking Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers’(notes) jaw last year. When Ward, who later apologized, questioned whether quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) should have played during Sunday night’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens, he hit the root nerve of why players drag themselves on the field even after taking one shot after another to the head.

If you don’t, you’re not a man.

That’s the downside of the macho, Alpha male world that is professional football. In feeding that gladiator mentality, any sign of weakness is mocked mercilessly. For as much pain as Roethlisberger has endured by taking sack after sack during his career (221 if you’re counting), even he doesn’t get a break.

Sadly Roethlisberger, no stranger to the league’s weekly injury report, has developed a reputation for being a bit of a drama queen when it comes to ailments. Yeah, he has played through his injuries, including a broken rib last year in the playoffs. But he has either had issues overstated – such as when ESPN’s Michele Tafoya reported in 2006 that he had a temperature of 104 instead of the actual 100.4 – or made sure that people knew, such as explaining the extent of his broken rib last offseason to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King. That’s what other players resent.

Even more, they try to keep from being compared to the Steelers signal caller. One prominent player said this offseason when asked about a series of injuries he played through in 2008, “Please don’t make me sound like Ben.” The issue is even more prominent in the Steelers locker room, where Roethlisberger’s teammates have privately rolled their eyes at his series of injuries.

Thus, when Roethlisberger has to miss a key game, he’s not given much sympathy. Few people in the game get that type of compassion. The opinion of most players is that head injuries are part of the game. Worse, concussions are widely misunderstood in a sport where compound fractures barely get much notice.

It’s only a flesh wound, after all.

In football, if you’re not bleeding, you’re not trying. And if you’re worried about the long-term ramifications of your injuries, you might as well quit. Like it or not, that’s the way people think.

“Players don’t think about what’s going to happen to them in the future,” said former Jacksonville left tackle Tony Boselli, who was on a path to the Hall of Fame before injuries cut his career short. “Really, you can’t. You’re not thinking about getting hurt or what you’re going to do after your career is over. You can’t think about that. You have to believe you’re invincible, that you’re not going to get hurt.”

The failure to consider the future is even apparent in Boselli’s claim that a lot of his former teammates wouldn’t invest money in 401K plans, even when teams were matching funds dollar for dollar.

Talk about not using your head.

Likewise, there was a telling moment when former New York Jets running back Curtis Martin(notes) once was tackled so hard, falling backward and hitting the back of his helmet on the turf so violently that he came to the sideline with blood dripping from his nose. Former Jets backup quarterback Ray Lucas looked at Martin and was frightened for him.

“I said, ‘Curtis, you need to get that looked at,’  ” Lucas said. “He said, ‘No man, I’m fine.’   “

Thus, the league can do all sorts of things to discuss the problems with concussions; Fox analyst and former Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw can rail against the NFL about how his good friend and late teammate Mike Webster wasn’t helped properly as he suffered for years; you can have doctors on the sideline and have players donate their brains to science for the next 100 years. Yet, nothing, absolutely nothing, is going to change the macho element of the game. Nothing is going to change the belief among players that they are warriors playing for a greater destiny. As silly as that may sound, it’s the truth.

QUICK SLANTS

Spreading the word: Former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann joined a recent campaign to encourage people – particularly men who are 60 or older, have a history of heart problems and/or were smokers – to seek annual checkups for a condition called Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm. Known as “the silent killer,” Theismann got involved because his 89-year-old father suffers from the same condition. “My father had triple-bypass surgery 27 years ago and he’s had surgery since to put in stents and he’s fine,” Theismann said. “That’s been a blessing for my family.” Theismann said there are approximately 1 million people who have the condition and are unaware of it. “This is a unique situation because it has touched my life and it’s something that can be taken care of very easily,” he said, also noting a bus crash in Minnesota two weeks that involved a driver who reportedly had a ruptured aneurysm while behind the wheel. “This is a situation where what happens to you can really affect other people.” More information about the condition can be found at findtheAAAnswer.org.

Positive sign: To all those Indianapolis fans who believe I hate the Colts, please calm down. Here’s a bit of good news to consider. During their first 11 games, the Colts have won six contests by a touchdown or less. While that’s at the high end for most championship contenders, there has been a sharp increase in recent years in the number of one-score games that Super Bowl teams win over the course of the regular season and the playoffs. Starting with the New England Patriots in 2001, five of the past eight Super Bowl champions have won at least seven games by seven points or less. That’s a significant jump over what had happened the previous 35 years. During that time, only seven teams total went through seasons with seven or more games decided by a touchdown or less. In fact, in 2003, New England had nine victories decided by seven points or less. That tied the most ever by a Super Bowl champ (the San Francisco 49ers did the same thing in 1981). The other part is that Super Bowl champions are winning an increasing number of playoff games by such close scores. During the past eight seasons, eventual champions have had to win 12 playoff games by a margin of seven points or less. That’s an average of 1.5 games a year. During the previous 35 years, eventual champions had to win only 23 games by seven or less. That’s an average of less than one (.66) game per year.

Top five
1. New Orleans Saints (11-0):
Good luck to foes figuring out who to cover on any given play
2. Minnesota Vikings (10-1): Percy Harvin(notes) looking like a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year
3. Indianapolis Colts (11-0): Fans need to stop nit-picking with the small critiques.
4. San Diego Chargers (8-3): One of about a half-dozen contenders I don’t trust.
5. Cincinnati Cincinnati Bengals (8-3): An incredibly disciplined defense led by coordinator Mike Zimmer.

Bottom five
28. Oakland Raiders (3-8):
Gradkowski bubble burst worse than the housing bubble.
29. Detroit Lions (2-9): Why was Stafford playing in the fourth quarter against Green Bay?
30. St. Louis Rams (1-10): There’s so much to fix, where do you start?
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-10): Expect them to scout UF’s Carlos Dunlap very hard.
32. Cleveland Browns (1-10): Charlie Weis working for Eric Mangini? Are you kidding me?

This and that

Shockey still had plenty reason to smile Monday night.
(John David Mercer/US Presswire)

New Orleans tight end Jeremy Shockey(notes) is doing his best to keep a proper perspective on things as the Saints continue to win. Shockey caught only one pass on Monday night and watched five other receivers grab touchdown passes. “If I was just into my own stats, I’d be complaining about that,” Shockey said. “I am a competitor and any competitor wants to get the ball and score touchdowns, but we have so many talented guys for [quarterback] Drew [Brees] to throw it to. If you don’t get the ball in one of the first three or four plays, there’s a good chance you’re not going to get it, so that’s hard. God didn’t bless me with a lot of patience.”

Look for Oklahoma junior running back DeMarco Murray to test his value in the NFL draft with him likely to leave the Sooners, especially if coach Bob Stoops bolts in the next month, according to a source monitoring the situation. Murray is projected as a late-first round pick by some people and perhaps the third-best running back in the draft despite coming off a subpar season.

Speaking of running backs, don’t expect New Orleans running back Reggie Bush(notes), who is due to count for approximately $8 million against the cap next season, to stay with the team. One Saints insider said general manager Mickey Loomis isn’t interested in carrying Bush’s salary, even if there is an uncapped season. Bush’s cap number and secondary importance to the team could create conflict in a locker room where several players, such as wide receiver Marques Colston(notes), are expected to cash in soon.

If the NFL is truly concerned about player safety, it will quickly change its policy on having officials delay whistling plays dead. A prime example of this was at the end of the first half of the Indianapolis-Houston game when Texans defensive back Brice McCain(notes) intercepted a pass by Peyton Manning(notes). McCain was eventually ruled down by contact on the play. However, instead of whistling the play dead immediately, the officials let it play out as McCain attempted to return the ball and was eventually decked on a high hit. Sure, McCain was OK, but by allowing the play to go on, he was exposed to an unnecessary hit. “You have to talk to the refs about how they’re instructed to handle that,” Colts tight end Dallas Clark(notes) said. “But if the play is down, they should do what they can to make sure the play is dead so nobody gets hurt.” That may sound like an insignificant issue, but if there are five to 10 plays like that per week, you’re talking about 100 to 200 extra hits over the course of a season.

Despite reports up until Friday that Roethlisberger was practicing and intending to play, most sports books refused to put a line on the Steelers’ game at Baltimore. By comparison, there was a line on the Arizona Cardinals-Tennessee Titans game all week as it was similarly reported that quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) was going to play. The disparity is odd and speaks to the likelihood that inside information about Roethlisberger got out somehow, keeping bookmakers wary even as he said he was going to play.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Dec 1, 2009