|Players risking more than a game or two by taking chances with health|
|Written by Admin|
|Saturday, 22 September 2007 00:01|
Those times he got up, shook off the hard hits and went right back to the game, that wasn't courage. Those games where he barely remembered his name, let alone where he was, that wasn't toughness.
It was stupidity.
Like so many players before him and still more after him, the former New York Jets receiver endangered his health and well-being because that's just what NFL players do. Unless it's broken or torn - and even then, there are plenty of exceptions - you get back out there.
But as we're learning now, the price is far too steep.
Former players suffering memory loss, possibly triggered by multiple concussions. Autopsies that show evidence of brain damage in Andre Waters and three Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linemen, again maybe the result of a career of vicious hits. Players in their 40s and 50s looking two decades older, hobbled by arthritic hips and knees and God knows what else.
Yes, the NFL has changed the rules. But that means little unless the play-at-all-costs culture changes, too. And from what we've seen so far this season, there's still a long way to go.
Jon Kitna got dinged so badly in the second quarter Sunday he ``barely'' knew where he was, and the Detroit Lions quarterback said it was the worst his head has ever hurt. Yet a quarter later, he'd been cleared to play.
Of course, Kitna returned in the fourth quarter, and the Lions won.
Jacksonville defensive tackle John Henderson went back into last weekend's game after suffering a ``blow to the head,'' then had to be helped off the field with what the team said were heat-related issues. He hasn't practiced since.
Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas will miss only the 14th game of his 12-year career Sunday because of a concussion. The seven-time Pro Bowler played every snap last weekend.
TV commentators were incredulous that the New York Giants would even think of sitting Eli Manning last week. Never mind that Manning had a bruised shoulder which, considering he's a quarterback, is kind of a big deal.
But the Giants were playing the Packers, and Brett Favre never takes a day off. He's played with a broken thumb, a gimpy ankle, a bad knee. He even played the day after his father died. If Favre, who is closing in on the overall NFL record for consecutive starts, can continually gut it out, so, the commentators said, should Manning.
And on and on it goes.
``The truth is that we are going to lie. I lied about it,'' Chrebet, whose career was cut short by multiple concussions, said earlier this week. ``Everybody has lied about it, whether it's your head, knee or any kind of injury. You have to take it out of the players' hands.''
Football is a violent game, and part of its appeal for fans and players alike is the vicious hits and bone-crunching tackles. Aside from maybe rugby, it's the closest we have to the gladiator contests of ancient times.
So, yes, there are going to be injuries, some of them gruesome. But accepting a risk is one thing. Openly courting it is quite another.
``In a lot of cases, the player wants to play,'' Dolphins coach Cam Cameron said. ``Sometimes you've just got to take a deep breath, and sometimes it's tough. You know what it means to lose a player like Zach Thomas. But there is a lot bigger picture out there that you are accountable to.''
The NFL can talk all it wants about how it's protecting its players - we'll leave the discussion about why it took so long for another day - and institute new guidelines to keep woozy players off the field. The reality is players are expected to play hurt, and until somebody stops them, they'll continue to try.
This, after all, is their livelihood. NFL careers are generally short-lived, and extended periods in the training room isn't the way to impress a coach or move up the depth chart. They're also elite athletes in their 20s and 30s, too young and too strong to question their invincibility.
No, if players are ever going to make their health a priority, they'll have to see the NFL do it first.
In Kitna or Henderson's cases, for example, what would have been the harm in keeping them out the rest of the day? A concussion, remember, is just the medical term for what happens when the brain slams into the skull. Is it really possible to be too careful?
No one is suggesting the NFL become flag football. Or that players go on the injured list at the sight of a hangnail. But serious injuries should be treated as such, and when there's any doubt, err on the side of caution.
The NFL will still be thriving and healthy years from now. It would be nice if the same could be said of its former players.
Nancy Armour is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to her at narmourap.org