By Ann Killion
November 24, 2009

The NFL took a small step forward from its customary stance of denial and obfuscation on the issue of brain injuries.

Yet, just as Commissioner Roger Goodell announced a new policy requiring teams to consult with independent neurologists it was still -- troublingly -- business as usual around the league.

Take the cases of the two quarterbacks who played in last year's Super Bowl. The Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger left Sunday's game after taking a blow to the head and suffering concussion-like syndromes. But by Monday reports out of Pittsburgh described the Super Bowl winning quarterback as "fine" and capable of playing this week. Arizona's Kurt Warner also left his game against St. Louis after his head slammed into the turf. But the Cardinals are "optimistic" Warner will play this week.

And those are just the glamour names to emerge from the weekly carnage. On Sunday, like every other Sunday, hundreds of players suffered hits to the head and could be risking their post-football health by rushing back to the game.

The culture of denial and quick turnarounds runs too deep in the NFL to be changed by a commissioner's mandate.

Still, Goodell's decision to turn to people outside of the league payroll is welcome and long overdue. If it took the league being shamed in front of congress -- where Goodell and his colleagues were embarrassingly compared to tobacco executives for their level of denial -- then the public flogging produced actual results.

But the inherent problem remains: if the NFL confronts head trauma in a realistic cautious manner, Goodell runs the risk of not having enough players to field 32 teams.

We're learning more and more about the seriousness of brain injury with every passing week. The concern reached a crescendo last month with the congressional hearings and Malcolm Gladwell's in-depth look at the issue in The New Yorker.

In The New Yorker, Ira Casson, who co-chairs an NFL committee on brain injury, said he isn't sure what the solution is. "No one has any suggestions -- assuming that you aren't saying no more football, because let's be honest, that's not going to happen," he said.

No, that's not going to happen. But, let's be honest, the toll of America's favorite form of violence is very real. The links between repetitive injury and early dementia are frightening.

In Philadelphia, no one seems sure when Brian Westbrook will return after suffering two concussions this season. In San Francisco, linebacker Jeff Ulbrich was placed on injured reserve last month due to a concussion and will likely retire after the season.

Ulbrich acknowledged that playing linebacker for 10 years means he's suffered an untold number of hits to his head. But he admitted he doesn't want to read all the new evidence, such as the information Gladwell cited that repetitive small hits are just as damaging as one serious concussion.

Goodell's new policy addresses an issue that has long been troubling: the potential conflict of interest for doctors paid by teams and the league. Physicians who are ostensibly there to protect the health of players face constant pressure to get the product back on the field.

And in a league of unguaranteed contracts and unrestrained machismo, the player is often eager to return.

"It's like you're programmed," Kyle Turley told Gladwell. "You've got to go without question. I'm a warrior. I can block that out of my mind."

The culture of denial trickles down to college, high school and youth football. Every day, coaches and administrators struggle with medical issues far beyond their capability. At Cal, Jahvid Best has been sidelined for two weeks after suffering a horrific end zone collision and concussion. In Florida, Tim Tebow -- who, in September, was knocked out cold and carted off the field vomiting -- hasn't missed a game (the Gators had a bye the week after Tebow suffered his concussion). But some observers think he hasn't been the same since.

On high school fields around the country, kids are carted off with concussions every week. In New Jersey last year, a junior linebacker was cleared to play after suffering a concussion. He suffered another hit, which ended up killing him. His parents are suing the high school and their doctor.

The violent hits are celebrated. The early returns to the field are deemed courageous. The head traumas of star players are underplayed.

The NFL sets the tone for it all. Commissioner Goodell took a step forward this week. But there's a long way to go.

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)