A Growing Trauma—the Steelers and Concussions

AP Photo/John Froschauer

The past two weeks in the NFL have been quite the concussion-fest. There were 15 concussion reported on the NFL injury list for Week 11 and 23 reported in Week 12 (some of those were holdovers from Week 11, but most were new.)

And although the Week 13 list wasn’t out when I wrote this, we know of at least two—Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier of the Steelers.

Of the multiple concussions in the Week 11 games, the one which garnered the most attention was the one in the Ravens-Rams games. In it, a clearly concussed Case Keenum was sent back into the game, presumably due to a combination of circumstances and failed safety checks. The referee who should have stopped the game instead sent the Rams’ trainers off the field, leaving Keenum to play a couple more downs. The NFL spotter was looking at heaven only knows what, because there was no way you could have seen Keenum go to the ground and lay there clutching his helmet with his hands and not insist he be looked at. Coach Jeff Fisher more or less implied it wasn’t his job to babysit his players.

Contrast this with the scene in Seattle last week. A woozy Ryan Shazier was taken off the field, protesting the whole time he was fine. Mike Tomlin walked over to him and gave him an earful, telling him go with the doctors and pay attention to what they said. Later in the game Ben Roethlisberger, who looked okay although he had taken a head shot which bent his face mask, self-reported a possible problem, as he noted his peripheral vision wasn’t right. “It was like looking through water,” Roethlisberger said later.

Craig Wolfley of Steelers.com noted an oddity about this. First, he said no one would have questioned Roethlisberger continuing to play had he not self-reported, as there was nothing obvious. He also noted the strangeness of seeing a guy jogging into the locker room. Generally speaking, he said, guys are either going in on a cart or being helped along. Roethlisberger was clearly in a hurry to get the test done so he could go back in if they deemed him fit.

Would Roethlisberger have reported his symptoms if it were earlier in the game? There is no way of telling. But according to Roethlisberger, he self-reported because for the first time he thought of his family and his life after football. As he said in a video interview on Steelers.com:

As a competitor it is hard not to be out there. But I was literally standing there for the first time and thinking “it’s bigger than just me—it’s about my family, my wife, my kids.”

Ramon Foster addressed the issue on his Tuesday morning segment on The Fan. After speculating Roethlisberger didn’t really notice how he felt after the hit until he went to the sideline:

Those hits can be kind of tricky, because the player in you wants to keep going. I’m not sure he knew it when it happened, or when he calmed down on the sidelines. It was a big game and everything—that’s why they have those spotters now, why guys have to be pulled when they suspect those situations…

Roethlisberger was asked: “In your first or second year in the league, do you self-report this?”

No. No. We weren’t smart, and we need to be smarter as football players…

You don’t want to think about after football, but you have to. You have to think about the type of man, husband, father you want to be when you’re done playing, because this is such a short part of our life.

When asked if he was trying to reach a larger audience with his remarks about head injuries, he said:

Yes—we are blessed to be able to stand on a big platform and reach a lot of people…if you can reach one person I feel like it’s a successful day. So many young people, kids, middle school, high school, college, it’s tough to fight through a concussion. [in the sense of taking yourself out of a game.] It was tough when I first got out there, and probably still is, but it’s not smart. That’s the one part of your body you shouldn’t mess with.

A 100 million dollar man like Ben Roethlisberger has a bit more leeway, however. Joe Starkey of the Tribune-Review wrote in last Thursday’s paper:

Roethlisberger uttered some hugely important words Tuesday. He basically told fellow players, “You’re not less of a man if you report symptoms and leave a game.”

Still, as he admitted Wednesday, it’s a harder call for bubble players to self-report.

I spoke with one of them. Terence Garvin was honest. His words were as important as Ben’s.

“A star player can be like, ‘All right, I’m really hurt,’ but I feel like another person might feel like, ‘All right, I have a little headache, let me try to shake it off or deal with it real quick,’ ” Garvin said. “You don’t want somebody else in your spot. If you’re lower level, you don’t want that.”

We need that kind of honesty. All of us. Teams, media, players, coaches, doctors. The NFL, especially.

As Starkey pointed out at length on his 93.7 the Fan radio show on Tuesday, there is a certain hyper-sensitivity in Steelers headquarters right now. Starkey had been to see an advance screening of “Concussion,” the Will Smith movie which comes out at Christmas.

It centers around former Steeler Mike Webster, whose brain opened up an enormous can of worms for the NFL. The pathologist who did the examination of Webster’s brain, at his own expense, was trained at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, and ran the analysis there. The movie was filmed in Pittsburgh, a lot of the cutting-edge concussion research is being done here, and the author of the book upon which the movie is based, Jeanne Marie Laskas, is a professor at Pitt. So it is hardly surprising that Pittsburgh should be a bit of an epicenter of the storm which may well hit after the movie comes out.

And Mike Tomlin has been involved in the push in youth football to increase safety, coining the motto “Don’t use the head, don’t hit the head.” However, as Starkey points out in the same article, the team hasn’t always been so careful about its own players, even in recent years:

Certainly, they don’t want to look as cavalier as they appeared late in last year’s playoff game against Baltimore, when Roethlisberger and Heath Miller absorbed wicked head shots and seemed groggy, to say the least, but returned to action in about the time you can say “CTE.”

Of course, what is happening here is the two-steps-forward-one-step-back sort of progress you get when an entire culture has to change. As Ivan Cole said in a comment to my earlier article on Unnecessary Head Trauma:

The game is such that its very difficult for players to remove themselves unless they are literally at the verge of collapse. Many players don’t want to do anything that could be viewed as ducking out of a fight. And there is the perception of giving in to weakness. And then there is the matter of career survival. Pressure comes from a variety of directions, including the fans, that is very unsympathetic to injury. The issues that fans had with Shazier and Jones last year, and Cortez Allen are at injury related. There are limits to what we will tolerate in terms of injury from the players. After that they are seen as liabilities.

It this aspect that may be the hardest to transform.

It seems as if there is a huge uptick in concussions, but it is reasonable to assume the number of concussions is the same or even less—it’s just the awareness and the reporting are very different. It wasn’t very many years ago that James Harrison said it is a much bigger deal to hit a guy in the knee than the head. After all, “getting your bell rung” is all in a day’s work, and you’re right back at practice. A knee injury can take a long time to heal or even be career-ending.

However, in today’s understanding of the effects of head injuries, even old-school players like Harrison are getting it. Joe Starkey and Chris Mueller discussed on their radio show on Thursday whether the onus is now on the players—do they know enough to make an informed decision? Both men said yes, they do. Unlike the early days depicted in “Concussion,” when the NFL was actively engaged in suppressing the research, they have had no choice but to own up to the dangers of head injuries.

In the “good old days” you would be right back in the game. Players have described having to be pointed towards the correct goal line, not being able to distinguish which was their own sideline, or even what they were supposed to be doing. Some of those players are now the poster children for the effects of CTE. And the poster isn’t pretty.

As Ben Roethlisberger said in another interview on Wednesday,

There’s just so many players—you know, Junior Seau and Frank Gifford—even a close friend of mine, Merril Hoge. You see the ramifications in players 10, 20, 30 years after they’re done playing, and it’s sad. I don’t want my teammates, my linemen, everybody that you’ve played with, when you have reunions—we have this Super Bowl 40 reunion coming a few years from now—I don’t want to see them hobble on the sideline and drool, not be able to remember things. I think we all need to speak up about it.

And as the players become able to speak up about it, we as fans need to examine our own hearts. Of course we want our teams to win, but at what cost? Would I accept the Steelers missing the playoffs if it was because the team was protecting men who had no business playing from themselves? Absolutely. I don’t see how any other stance is ethical.

The question is, will coaches with a lot less job security than Mike Tomlin be able to do the best for their players? Yes, I believe they will, if we as fans begin demanding it of our teams’ ownership and of the League. Unfortunately, I think there are way too many fans who really don’t care.

One of the hosts of the 93.7 the Fan Morning Show, Colin Dunlap, said a couple of weeks ago, in regards to performance enhancing drugs, that he couldn’t care less about the players. The only thing he cared about was that he was entertained. As far as he was concerned, they should all be hopped up to the eyebrows with PEDs. He wasn’t in the least interested in what effects they might have in later years. I wonder how that attitude went down with one of his co-hosts, former Steelers punter Josh Miller.

Of course I find Dunlap’s comments appalling, but I suppose we should at least commend him for his honesty. I expect if you asked him about concussions he would have a similar take. After all, he doesn’t have to watch them “drool [and] not remember things.”

I fear he speaks for way too many fans. Dunlap and his ilk are part of the problem. They are making it seem respectable to think that because the players are being paid lots of money to entertain us they are only worth our interest as long as they are doing so.

It shines a light on a rather frightening disregard for the claims of other human beings on our compassion. I really hope “Concussion” can open some people’s eyes to the humanity of the players who lay themselves out each week for our entertainment. There are a lot of societal problems which could be solved if we started viewing each other, whatever our social status or circumstances, as fellow human beings.


  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    A very good article. Neal or whomever makes the decisions at Steelers Wire should pick this one up.

    I am very glad Ben self reported. I am not glad that Bennett wasn’t at least fined if not suspended for the hit. It is up to the players to look after themselves as it is obvious that the league will only pay lip service to the issue.

    The self reporting of concussions happens at all levels of the sport. One of my boys finally admitted that he had suffered between 10-12 concussions (we had only known of one), mostly of the minor variety but damaging none the less. The other hasn’t admitted to any but it is likely he has suffered some as well but some issues he had when he was younger made it more difficult to determine if he had suffered a concussion or was just very upset. I doubt we will ever know (knee and shoulder injuries seem to have sidelined his rugby ambitions).


  • Rebecca, nobody can keep me in line 🙂 I wanted to link this article with James Harrison’s take on the concussion risk in the NFL. I remember you writing a good article on the subject at BTSC as well, if my better half wasn’t ready to go I would find it as well. http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/steelers/2015/12/03/On-the-Steelers-Assumption-of-risk/stories/201512030094

    It is my first time linking, not sure how it will work out.


    • There is a sequel coming out, and it uses some of the same material as the BTSC article, and some updates. There is a quote from you in it as well : ) It is either coming out tomorrow morning or next Saturday, as Ivan has something he’s working on.


  • When Shazier was cleared to play I this week I read a pretty snarky comment by a “fan”. I guess he forgot he was taken off the field. I get he’s been hurt a lot, but it shows how some fans still feel about concussions.
    Guys like Ben making a statement like this could help educate fan also.


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