Hines Ward is the epitome of the NFL tough guy. As a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he is known for his flamboyant personality and his ability to give and take ferocious hits. He was the most valuable player in Superbowl XL. In his pursuit of athletic excellence, he is a gambler. No, he is not betting on games. He is betting with his own life.
In the course of his football career, Ward has suffered numerous concussions. But he continues playing. He has even lied about his symptoms, so that the doctors would allow him to keep playing.
In this regard, Ward is part of the mainstream culture of professional athletics. Play today, pay (perhaps) tomorrow.
Until recently, the NFL was complicit in allowing players like Ward to gamble away their futures in the interest of the next game. The league's leading advisor on concussions, Dr. Ira Casson, routinely dismissed every outside study finding links to dementia and other cognitive decline, including three papers published by the University of North Carolina's Center for the Study of Retired Athletes.
The NFL is in the midst of a major change of policy regarding concussions. Dr. Casson has resigned. The league is requiring teams to have an independent consulting neurologist examine players with concussions. They have finally acknowledged what has been obvious for years: repeated concussions, especially when occuring over a relatively short period of time, can have a devastating effect on the brains of athletes. Well, duh!
Roethlisberger Sits, Ward Frets
Hines Ward came face to face with the new, more cautious NFL this past weekend, when star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sat out a crucial game against the Baltimore Ravens. He suffered a concussion the prior week, when his head collided with the knee of an opposing player. Even though he practiced with the team all week, Big Ben suffered from recurring headaches toward the end of the week. At the last minute, the coach kept him from the game and substituted a relatively inexperienced quarterback. The Steelers lost.
After the game, Ward said the Steelers players were split 50-50 on whether Roethlisberger should have played. Ward added that, "these games, you don't get back."
"I understand what the league is doing," he said. "I don't judge another man."
He went on to say: "We needed him out there. We wanted him out there. This is the biggest game of the year. We lost and we kind of dug ourselves a hole. Me being a competitor, I just wish we would've had all our weapons out there. It's frustrating."
Paradigm Shift: Sudden or Gradual?
The NFL will never be for sissies. Nonetheless, the policy shift on concussions is long overdue and most welcome. However, it may not be easy to enforce. Players like Ward may soon learn to remain silent on critical symptoms (dizziness, headache). They may avoid talking to the team doctors so they can stay in the game. These old school tough guys might even call out teammates who choose a more cautious route. As the legendary coach Vince Lombardi supposedly said: "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing."
Well, not quite. There are many things in life that are a lot more important than winning. Just ask one of the many retired NFL players with Parkinson's or dementia.
In the conventional workplace we tend to fret about people with minor injuries, who may resist returning to work even though it is safe to do so. In professional sports, it's usually the opposite: athletes will do almost anything to get back into the game, even jeapordize their future health. Just as we could use a little more of a "get me back in the game" attitude from reticent employees, we need to recognize that concussions require time to heal. Toughness is fine in its place, but let's not be stupid about it. A game is just a game, a job is just a job. Neither is worth a single life.