NFL takes concussions more seriously than before

FORT LAUDERDALE — Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman Anthony Munoz played 13 arduous seasons in the NFL beginning in the early 1980s. Back then, the deciding factor in determining whether injured players should remain on the sideline was utterly unambiguous.

"As long as a bone wasn't sticking out," Munoz recalled this week, "you went back in."

Today, as the whispers about the unseen effects of football become a chorus — specifically concussions and other head injuries — Munoz occasionally finds himself wondering if what you don't know can, in fact, hurt you.

"It's scary," concedes Munoz, 51. "You see guys who you knew, and they're in their early 50s, maybe in their 60s. In one year, we're talking like you and me are. Then the next year, you see them and they're (distant).

"It can be just within a year that it happens. Look at boxers. You going to tell me that has nothing to do with boxing, the glassy-eyed look and the head problems?"

As Super Bowl weekend builds to Sunday's crescendo, millions will stop to revel in an event that is rivaled by few others. But there is a darker side to football that is no fun to confront.

Concussions are part of the game. Always have been.

But as science teaches us more about their possible long-term effects — depression and dementia are thought to be consequences of repeated head injuries — the league and players are beginning to act accordingly.

There is still a reluctance from the league to admit the links to the most severe potential long-term effects, but the NFL has come miles from where it once stood on the subject of concussions. The league used to go out of its way to discredit medical studies that disagreed with its public stance.

Now it has shown a willingness to work with experts and support further research. And in a major step forward, league commissioner Roger Goodell in November unveiled stricter guidelines for teams to use in dealing with concussed players.

Among them:

• Players should not return to a game or practice on the same day as exhibiting signs of a concussion.

• Before returning, they must be fully asymptomatic.

• They should be cleared by a physician not employed by the team.

It was not unusual before to see players return to action in a game after exhibiting symptoms.

The guidelines are seen as steps in the right direction and appear to be something more than a public relations effort.

"It's not window dressing," said Dr. David Satcher, a former U.S. Surgeon General who is joining forces with the NFL Alumni Association to study and raise awareness of the mental health issues of former players.

"Those guidelines come from medicine. They come from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the CDC. … So those guidelines are based on things that we know (about) how you prevent dramatic brain injuries and concussions."

Goodell on Friday used vastly different language than the league once did in describing the problem.

"We need to make the game safer," he said. "That conversation is about how we modify the rules to take certain (hitting) techniques out of the game. We use better equipment to make sure our players are safer and do what we can to make sure that our coaches and our players understand the seriousness of these issues and they get medical help when an injury occurs.

"We have more work to do, but we think we're making progress and we're changing the culture. And that's what we really want to do."

But this has not been completely self-motivated. The pro­gress comes after serious prodding. For starters, the medical evidence pointing to links between concussions and serious ailments continues to mount.

And people in positions of power have brought attention to the issue.

During a congressional hearing last year, Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., drew parallels between the NFL's attitudes toward concussions and the tobacco industry's years of denials that smoking causes cancer. Gay Culverhouse, daughter of onetime Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse, testified at those hearings and tore into the NFL for its stance at the time.

"If it is a head injury, (the player) is told to 'shake it off,' " she told lawmakers. "The players get to the point that they know better than to complain that they have suffered a concussion."

Culverhouse has become an advocate for former players who have endured symptoms they believe are related to head injuries, among them former Buccaneers Richard "Batman" Wood and Scot Brantley.

Bruce Laird, a former Colt and active member of the Alumni Association, used his friend and teammate, Hall of Famer John Mackey, as an example of why today's league should take heed.

"I saw what dementia (did) to a very articulate entrepreneur such as John Mackey and did to his family," Laird said.

Laird continues to make overtures to the players union in hopes of enlisting its help in addressing retired players' mental health concerns, but the union continues to resist. Laird says the union does so at the players' own peril.

"We want to help the active players of today (understand) what they're going to go through," he said. "I tell a story all the time when I talk to young players. If you really want to see what you're going to be like in 25 years … why don't you come to an NFL alumni meeting and come around and see the gentlemen sitting in front of you and see what you're going to look like at 50 years old. Then you'll get a real flavor for what happens.

"It's a vicious game."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

NFL takes concussions more seriously than before 02/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 5, 2010 9:25pm]

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