NFL players, teams more cautious now about brain injuries
January 16, 2016 12:00 AM
John Minchillo/Associated Press
Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, right, lowers his shoulder to strike Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in the head late in the teams’ wild-card playoff game on Jan. 9 in Cincinnati.
By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Late Steelers center Mike Webster had been pasting his teeth with Super Glue when he died. Former right guard Terry Long drank a fatal dose of antifreeze. Justin Strzelczyk, once an offensive lineman, plowed into a tanker truck in a fatal crash.
Such tragic ends have become real-life warnings for a new generation of professional players, many of whom are more willing to confess their concussion symptoms and spend days recovering on the bench, NFL veterans and observers said Friday. More than 80 former NFL players have tested positive for CTE, the degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive head trauma.
“I think the culture has changed. I think the mindset is that they don’t want to take unnecessary chances, for the most part, with brain injury,” said former Steelers team physician Julian Bailes. The decision to sideline All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown, perhaps the Steelers’ most dynamic offensive player, for a playoff game, Dr. Bailes continued, is “a good, modern example” of fundamental shifts inside the league.
The Steelers announced Friday that Mr. Brown, the team’s MVP who was concussed Jan. 9, will sit out the AFC divisional round game Sunday against the Denver Broncos. He failed an NFL concussion protocol that players must complete before they return to play, according to the team.
A shoulder-to-helmet blow from Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict delivered the injury and resulted in a penalty, a play that may have gone unflagged before the NFL tightened safety practices over the past few years. The sight rattled former Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden, who called it “a scary hit.”
“If this happened years ago, I think there would be a higher chance he would have played this weekend,” Mr. McFadden said of Mr. Brown, citing what he called more lax standards in the past.
NFL officials introduced the concussion protocol in 2007 and updates the guide each year, league spokesman Greg Aiello said via email. It standardizes the treatment process across the 32 NFL teams, mandating that concussed players must overcome their symptoms, pass a cognitive test and make a gradual return to their exercise routines, among other requirements.
The process reduces the odds that a player with lingering symptoms will return to the field too soon, said Robert Heyer, president of the NFL Physicians Society. He said a second concussion can bear worse injuries if a player hasn’t recovered from his first. Symptoms may include confusion, dizziness, nausea and fatigue.
“We really want people to be well. If you try to cut the corner and get them back on the field a little bit early, it usually will bite you a little bit later,” said Dr. Heyer, who doubles as team internist for the Carolina Panthers.
He said players in the past decade have become more attuned to their concussions and less willing to gloss over symptoms, a pattern that makes it easier for doctors to collect accurate information. He and Dr. Bailes said they suspect concussed players are taking longer breaks since the protocol took effect, although statistics weren’t immediately available this week.
It’s also unknown whether the extra recovery time may reduce a player’s risk for CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Discovered in Pittsburgh in 2002, the disease has catapulted to national notoriety, in part through the 2015 film “Concussion.”
The ailment appears tied to the accumulation of a protein known as tau, with symptoms including memory loss, confusion and aggressive tendencies that may turn up years after repeated head trauma. Researchers are beginning to explore exactly how the disease unfolds — and how to prevent it.
“No one wants anyone injured. Whether [NFL officials] are being adequately conservative or not remains to be determined,” said Clayton Wiley, the neuropathology director at UPMC.
Some players credited the NFL for casting a brighter light on head trauma, which Dr. Bailes said became a bigger concern after congressional hearings in 2009. The same year, Hines Ward criticized Ben Roethlisberger for reporting concussion-like symptoms.
It’s hard to imagine something like that happening today, said Steelers receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.
“Everybody handles a concussion differently because we’re all different individuals. I might have headaches. You might be sensitive to light. There is no way to tell,” said Mr. Heyward-Bey, who was concussed in 2012.
“For someone outside of you to tell you how you should feel — that’s ridiculous,” he said.
Staff writer Ray Fittipaldo contributed. Adam Smeltz: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2625 or on Twitter @asmeltz.
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