Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hines Ward and Head Injuries

By Brad Oremland

Once upon a time, Hines Ward had all the qualities sports fans admire. He was a great player with a well-rounded skill set, a college quarterback turned Pro Bowl wide receiver. He was a fierce blocker at a position known more for divas than physicality. He spent his whole career with one team, and he always played with a smile on his face. What's not to like?

Maybe it was too good to be true. In recent years, Ward has repeatedly been voted the dirtiest player in the NFL, a dishonor normally reserved for defensive players, or the occasional offensive lineman. He was arrested for drunk driving, failing multiple field sobriety tests and refusing to take a breathalyzer. And he has been the league's most vocal advocate against protecting players from head trauma. Ward even admitted that he has lied to doctors after suffering concussions.

"I've lied to a couple of doctors saying, 'I'm straight, I feel good,' when I knew I'm really not straight. But I don't think guys really about the future when they're playing currently in the NFL." That's exactly why the NFL needs standards in place to protect players from head injuries: because they won't protect themselves. The drive to battle through those things is probably part of what makes them great players, but it's not in their own best interests.

The evidence strongly suggests that head trauma has a profound effect on players after their football career have ended. To take two recent examples, consider Jim McMahon and Corwin Brown. McMahon, the quarterback of the 1985 Bears team that went 18-1 and won Super Bowl XX 46-10, is one of seven former players suing the NFL for not doing enough to protect athletes from head injuries. McMahon, who admits to memory loss, said that during his playing career, “It was just tape an aspirin to your helmet and you go back in.” A separate group, including O.J. Anderson, Mark Duper, and Rodney Hampton, filed a similar suit in July.

Corwin Brown was a player and coach, in both the NCAA and NFL, for 21 years. Earlier this month, he was hospitalized with a self-inflicted gunshot wound following a standoff with police and SWAT personnel. Brown's family released a statement reading, in part, "We believe Corwin is suffering from symptoms similar to those experienced by the late Dave Duerson and were caused by the many notable collisions during Corwin's career in the NFL. For those reasons, Corwin chose to not disclose his symptoms, as he did not want to bring shame to any coach, team, organization, or the NFL. We can no longer remain silent and we believe it is important that his former teams, teammates, coaches, and the NFL to understand the severity of this situation."

Duerson, a four-time Pro Bowler and a teammate of McMahon's on the '85 Bears — not exactly a team known for being soft — shot himself in the chest earlier this year, asking that his brain be used for research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy caused by his football career. Three months later, neurologists at Boston University confirmed Duerson's suspicions: he was diagnosed post-mortem with CTE, a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions.

That's all in 2011. Go back further, and there are dozens more examples, some more concrete than others. Among them are Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, whose case Terry Bradshaw has tried to raise attention to via his position at FOX, and former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, a three-time Super Bowl champion during the Bill Belichick dynasty.

Hines Ward, the lifelong Steeler, isn't persuaded by Bradshaw and Webster. Ward, the guy who lies to doctors, doesn't buy into the findings from research on the brains of guys like Chris Henry and Duerson. Ward, who chose to drive drunk, also chose to play football after suffering concussions. But maybe he's not the best judge of what's safe.

Since no one is forcing you, let's not make any efforts to protect player safety. These guys know the risks, right? Honestly, I don't think most of them do. Certainly Ward doesn't understand, and his extremely poor judgment on a variety of topics reinforces the idea that maybe he should stop taking hits after he's gotten a concussion. Too many NFL players suffer concussions, and too many of them bear the ill effects after their playing careers are over. That's something the league can address without radically changing the game, and it's something that needs to be taken care of. Punchy, macho blowhards like Ward need to be protected from themselves, and if their brains are too beat up for them to understand that, the league needs to step in. Concussions and other head injuries will only become a bigger issue over time.

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