Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 – The year of the sports industry concussion

The sports industry dealt with Child sex abuse allegations, scandals plaguing major college football programs, labor woes for the National Football League and National Basketball Association in 2011. However, one of the most important issues the sports industry was forced to deal with in 2011 was concussion and head related trauma.

The NHL suffered the loss of the game’s marquee player Sidney Crosby to concussions, two NHL players committed suicide and a third died from a drug overdose. All three deaths were linked to the role they played during their NHL careers.

Late last week two lawsuits were filed against the National Football League by former players alleging the league had ignored concussions they had suffered during their NFL careers.

The Associated Press reported over the last two weeks, 23 of 44 NFL players said they would try to conceal a possible concussion rather than pull themselves out of a game.

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Colby Armstrong suffered a concussion during a game against the Vancouver Canucks on December 17. He didn’t tell the team. Two days later Leafs trainers found Armstrong vomiting and suffering blurry vision.

“He didn’t tell the trainers or the doctors, but he had his bell rung,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson according to the Toronto Star. “He was nauseated, blurry vision, so he’s got a concussion, and we didn’t know that.

“He’s going to be out however long he needs to be out now.”

“Everyone tries to play hurt, but you should never try to conceal a head injury — no one admires that or respects that,” Leafs President Brian Burke said. “We grudgingly respect when players hide other injuries, because they do it routinely. (Head injuries are) one where we absolutely insist the players be forthcoming.”

Colby Armstrong epitomizes the NHL’s nightmare, a fringe player hiding a life altering injury to try and save his career.

Crosby, the NHL’s best player, missed ten and half months before returning to play for the Penguins on November 21, 2011. Eight games later he began experiencing post-concussion symptoms and hasn’t played since.

If Crosby never plays another NHL game he’ll have more than made more than $50 million in his NHL career. Conversely, Colby Armstrong is in the first year of a three-year $9 million contract. Armstrong isn’t quite an NHL journeyman but he knows if he can’t play for whatever reason his NHL career will end when his current contract does. He clearly felt he had to play.

Crosby won’t return until he’s sure he’s concussion free, Armstrong tried to play with a concussion.

Just as disturbing was a report the Associated Press published over the Christmas weekend that suggested National Football League players will do whatever it takes to play football on Sundays.

Unlike the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball, NFL contracts are not guaranteed. If an NFL player suffers a career ending concussion, he can be cut by his NFL team and lose his salary. In the National Football League only a player’s bonus is guaranteed.

"Hide it," Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew NFL's leading rusher told the Associated Press.

"The bottom line is: You have to be able to put food on the table. No one's going to sign or want a guy who can't stay healthy. I know there will be a day when I'm going to have trouble walking. I realize that," Jones-Drew said. "But this is what I signed up for. Injuries are part of the game. If you don't want to get hit, then you shouldn't be playing."

The Associated Press spoke to at least one player from each of the NFL’s 32 teams looking at whether concussion safety and attitudes about head injuries have changed in the past two years. The group included 33 starters and 11 reserves; 25 players on offense and 19 on defense; all have played at least three seasons in the NFL.

The players told the AP they were more aware of safety issue. Five of the 44 players admitted to hiding concussions they had suffered while playing in NFL games.

"You look at some of the cases where you see some of the retired players and the issues that they're having now, even with some of the guys who've passed and had their brains examined -- you see what their brains look like now," said Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, the NFL's leading tackler. "That does play a part in how I think now about it."

"You want to continue to play. You're a competitor. You're not going to tell on yourself. There have been times I've been dinged, and they've taken my helmet from me, and ... I'd snatch my helmet back and get back on the field," Redskins backup fullback Mike Sellers offered in the AP report. "A lot of guys wouldn't say anything because a lot of guys wouldn't think anything during the game, until afterward, when they have a headache or they can't remember certain things."

The Associated Press report couldn’t have comforted the nearly two-dozen NFL players who filed a lawsuit against the NFL in lawsuits filed in Atlanta and Miami last week.

According to an Associated Press report: “one of the two lawsuits was filed Thursday in Miami on behalf of ex-Miami Dolphins team members Patrick Surtain, Oronde Gadsden and 19 other NFL players. Most now live in Florida. It accuses the National Football League of deliberately omitting or concealing evidence linking concussions and long-term neurological problems.”

The NFL was quick to deny the charges.

Following the Atlanta lawsuit, the NFL announced new concussion protocols for NFL teams.

“After reviewing our protocols for managing concussions with the NFLPA, our own medical advisors (including team physicians and athletic trainers), and outside experts, NFL clubs have been notified of two changes that will take effect with this week’s games.

“First, we have arranged for a certified athletic trainer to be at each game to monitor play of both teams and provide medical staffs with any relevant information that may assist them in determining the most appropriate evaluation and treatment. This athletic trainer will be stationed in a booth upstairs with access to video replay and direct communication to the medical staffs of both teams. In most cases, the athletic trainer will be affiliated with a major college program in the area or will have previously been affiliated with an NFL club. This individual will not diagnose or prescribe treatment, nor have any authority to direct that a player be removed from the game. Instead, the athletic trainer’s role will be to provide information to team medical staffs that might have been missed due to a lack of a clear view of the play or because they were attending to other players or duties. The athletic trainers are being identified and selected with the assistance of each club and the NFLPA. Their fees and expenses will be paid by the NFL office.

“Second, club medical staffs will be permitted to use their cell phones during games for purposes of obtaining information relating to the care of an injured player. This is not limited to concussions and is intended to assist team medical staffs in addressing a variety of injuries.

“Clubs also were reminded of the importance of team coaching and medical staffs continuing to work together to ensure that full information is available at all times to medical staffs, that players do not take steps to avoid evaluations, and that concussions continue to be managed in a conservative and medically appropriate way.”

The announcement of new policies followed a concussion Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy suffered after a helmet-to-helmet hit from Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Harrison received a one game suspension costing him over $73,000. The Browns “hope” McCoy returns for a meaningless final game against host Harrison and the Steelers in Cleveland Sunday.

The concussion issue will not go away just because the calendars change to 2012.

The NFL may need to make an example of someone like James Harrison the next time he throws a helmet-to-helmet hit. The NFL should consider banning Harrison for half an NFL season. His 2011 base pay was $1.25 million. A half season suspension would cost him half his salary. Only then will players like James Harrison learn that type of behavior isn’t acceptable in the National Football League.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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