Concussions in the NFL, Part 2: More players weighing risks, reporting symptoms

 

But one pro running back is unconvinced more NFLers will voluntarily leave games

 
 
 
 
Anthony (Boobie) Dixon of the Buffalo Bills, seen scoring a touchdown earlier this season, admires Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for self-reporting concussion symptoms, but suggests most NFL players are unlikely to do the same.
 

Anthony (Boobie) Dixon of the Buffalo Bills, seen scoring a touchdown earlier this season, admires Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for self-reporting concussion symptoms, but suggests most NFL players are unlikely to do the same.

Photograph by: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images, Postmedia News, Postmedia News

Just because Ben Roethlisberger took himself out of a game at crunch time for being concussed, don't expect many other NFL players to follow suit.

"I don't think the world should get used to that, man," Buffalo Bills running back Anthony (Boobie) Dixon told Postmedia News earlier this month.

"You're not going to see a whole lot of that. When you play in a game that's full of tough guys, you pretty much have to knock one of us out to quit the field. That was just something, probably, where Ben felt he could no longer help his team, so he took himself out. That was smart on his part. And unselfish."

On Monday, Postmedia examined what the NFL is and is not doing - and should be doing - by way of concussion protocols to better protect its players. But what of the players themselves?

Roethlisberger pulled himself near the end of a thriller in Seattle, nine plays after getting crushed in the head by Seahawks pass rusher Michael Bennett. Roethlisberger at first told sideline medical personnel he was fine. Then he thought of hall of famers Frank Gifford and Junior Seau and CTE - the disease found to have ravaged their brains.

CTE has been found in 87 of the 91 brains of former NFL players examined after death.

Dixon said he admires Roethlisberger, but most NFLers won't go down that road.

"In this game you take chances. We're all out there taking chances, snap after snap after snap," the sixth-year backup running back said. "The ones who stay in it, and stay in the grind, are the ones who want to get the glory. We're going to stay at it. They're going to have to take us out for us to not play."

To that end, it's no secret some players have deliberately tried to bomb the league-mandated neuropsychological "baseline" test. The test assesses memory, reaction time, attention span, problem-solving abilities and other brain functions so there are markers to compare when a player suffers a hit to the head.

Some players hope that by artificially lowering these scores - either deliberately or, sources say, with the aid of a recreational mind relaxant - they'll match scores when tested during a game. That way, they can either avoid being diagnosed as concussed at all or they can return to play faster if they are concussed. Peyton Manning admitted to baseline-bombing in 2011.

"You hear stories like that, sure," Jeff Miller, NFL senior VP of health and safety policy, told Postmedia. "We hope that's happening less and less over time, as players become more and more educated ... Could a player fake his way around it? Well you would hope not."

The president of the NFL's Physicians Society - Carolina Panthers team doctor Robert Heyer - told Postmedia at midseason that more players now admit when they feel concussed. That might explain a PBS Frontline report claiming concussions are up significantly this season, to 154 through Week 14, compared to 112 in all of 2014.

"Players are more honest with us, I think, than they were maybe eight or nine years ago," Heyer said. "We also have some players who self-report symptoms after a game, maybe on a Monday or Tuesday ... That's a result of increased education over the past few years."

It's important to point out that Roethlisberger by 2020 will have been paid upwards of $200 million by the Steelers since 2004. The vast majority of the 1,900 NFLers on active rosters or practice squads don't earn anything close to that.

The average NFL salary last season was $2.1 million US, but NFL salaries are not guaranteed, and many down-roster players earn less than $1 million US. The minimum salary ranges from $435,000 US for rookies to $970,000 US for veterans of 10-plus years.

Hundreds of fringe players live with the idea that their next day in the league could be their last.

Chris Nowinski, founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation - a non-profit group dedicated to preventing concussions in sport through medical research, educational programs and other ventures - told Postmedia that several fringe NFLers have contacted him this season. They're mulling whether it's worth potentially jeopardizing their long-term brain health in the slim hope of winning the NFL's version of the lottery: guaranteed millions that come with a long-term contract.

One young player who'd exhibited great promise already has quit over concussion concerns. After a stellar rookie season last year, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland shocked the sports world by retiring in March, as a result of his "own experience, along with a lot of data that is out there regarding long-term health effects of head injuries."

Some players willing to protect others

Some NFLers ensure concussed teammates don't play. More should.

"Increasingly, we hear stories about it, but they're anecdotal," said Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior VP of health and safety policy.

The league has partnered with the U.S. military to hold focus groups for NFLers and active-duty soldiers. "We asked, 'Would you pull yourself out if you were feeling the signs and symptoms of a concussion?'" Miller said. "Overwhelmingly the answer in both audiences was no. Then we asked, 'Would you, if you recognized the signs and symptoms in a teammate or battalion mate, pull him out?' And everyone was like, 'oh yeah, we'd definitely do that. (And) getting him away from the battle is better for the group.'" The take-away: You also help your team by pulling yourself out. But converting everyone to that mindset won't happen overnight.


john.kryk@sunmedia.ca


 
 
 
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Anthony (Boobie) Dixon of the Buffalo Bills, seen scoring a touchdown earlier this season, admires Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for self-reporting concussion symptoms, but suggests most NFL players are unlikely to do the same.
 

Anthony (Boobie) Dixon of the Buffalo Bills, seen scoring a touchdown earlier this season, admires Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for self-reporting concussion symptoms, but suggests most NFL players are unlikely to do the same.

Photograph by: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images, Postmedia News, Postmedia News

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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