Steelers, Roethlisberger Playing a Dangerous Game

Official word from the Steelers on Tuesday is that Ben Roethlisberger “got his bell rung” and, pending daily testing, will likely play in Sunday night’s crucial game against the Baltimore Ravens. A bell ringing is Pittsburghese for “concussion.”

Aside from the typical blue collar, walk-it-off sentiment used to describe Roethlisberger’s injury – no doubt to downplay the severity to the aggressive Ravens – the prognosis is a red flag.

I don’t like it one bit. Roethlisberger should not play in this game. Doctors are calling the concussion mild, but it’s his fourth concussion since 2006, and second in less than a year. He needs only to look across the I-76 to see what recurring concussions did to the career of Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. Westbrook, a 30-year-old two-time Pro Bowler, sustained a concussion on Oct. 26, and was held out the next two games by team doctors. He played again on Nov. 15, and was knocked out of the game with another concussion.

But a picture is worth 1,000 words, 10,000 diagnoses and 1 million brain scans. When the cameras showed Westbrook post-concussion and in street clothes on the sideline, his eyes were saucers. His face was vacant. He looked like he’d been hypnotized. Hell, anesthetized.

It was a miserable sight.

Doctors gave Westbrook the greenlight to play. It’s time the NFL starts thinking past "next Sunday."

There was a hauntingly similar moment captured by the CBS cameras in the closing moments of Sunday’s baffling loss to the Chiefs. You may have noticed a close-up of Roethlisberger sitting on the bench after Kansas City kicked the game-winning field goal. With team doctors surrounding him, Roethlisberger’s shoulders were hunched and he was shaking his head. But he was smiling. Several talk show callers commented on it, assuming that Roethlisberger was nonchalantly signaling to the world “Hey, no big deal. We’re still the champs.”

I don’t share the optimism. In fact, I didn’t read that in Roethlisberger’s face at all. There wasn’t any fire behind his eyes. To me, he looked stunned. He looked like a man who didn’t understand how he could survive a head-on collision with a Chrysler New Yorker, but be knocked out of a game by a flying knee.

His empty smile seemed to say, “Man, this is silly. I was even wearing a helmet this time!”

Unfortunately, that’s the way the league seems to view head injuries, too.

Concussions are serious injuries with potentially long-term consequences. But the NFL, despite having the best medical experts at its disposal, has long treated concussions are playground scars.

In October, NFL commissioner Roger Gooddell was called before Congress to defend the league’s handling of concussions. Goodell made a lot of promises to look into advanced helmet safety, but never admitted there was a link between concussions and serious long-term health issues.

Experts at Boston University beg to differ.

Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, said there is "growing and convincing evidence" that repetitive concussive and subconcussive hits to the head in NFL players leads to a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

CTE is a progressive neurological disorder found in people who have suffered some kind of brain trauma. CTE has many of the same manifestations as Alzheimer’s. It begins with behavioral and personality changes, followed by disinhibition and irritability, before moving on to dementia.

Malcolm Gladwell recently explored the link between former NFL players and CTE in great depth for The New Yorker. His findings were frightening, and hit close to home – right here in the Steel City, in fact.

From the article:

Mike Webster, the longtime Pittsburgh Steeler and one of the greatest players in NFL history, ended his life a recluse, sleeping on the floor of the Pittsburgh Amtrak station. Another former Pittsburgh Steeler, Terry Long, drifted into chaos and killed himself four years ago by drinking antifreeze….There were men with aching knees and backs and hands, from all those years of playing football. But their real problem was with their heads, the one part of their body that got hit over and over again.

Webster was a Steeler legend. But later in life, a husk of his former self.

But the pain of former Steelers isn’t limited to an era gone by. In 2004, former Steelers offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk led PA state troopers on a 40-mile high speed chase before dying in a fiery collision with a tanker truck. He was 36. After his death, Mary Strzelczyk, Justin’s mother, donated his brain to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist at the medical school, found four red splotches on Strzelczyk’s brain.

“This is irreversible brain damage,” Omalu said. “It’s most likely caused by concussions sustained on the football field.”

Several retired players testified at October’s congressional hearing, including former Steelers fullback Merril Hoge, who said a series of concussions caused him to retire at age 29. Hoge said that after suffering his first concussion, he never saw a neurological doctor and was cleared to play five days later.

"What happened to me would not happen in the National Football League today," Hoge said. "That does not mean we are all the way there. We are on the way."

On Sunday, the same day that Roethlisberger was concussed, and one week after the shell of Brian Westbrook sat bewildered on the sidelines for all to see on network television, the NFL announced that it will soon require teams to receive advice from independent neurologists while treating players with brain injuries.

Roethlisberger is being monitored daily with neurological tests, but that doesn’t mean he should be cleared to play five days later, like Hoge.

The entire mystique of the post-Bettis Pittsburgh Steelers relies on the myth of Ben Roethlisberger as a larger than life, indestructible super hero – capable not only of staring down oncoming blitzes with a dismissive smirk, but also stiff-arming and juking away from surefire sacks. Ben Roethlisberger is to the quarterback position what Earl Campbell was to the running back position. Roethlisberger plays without a conscience. He plays with a controlled recklessness.

If he allowed memory or fear to creep in for a moment, he would probably be an above-average quarterback. His fearlessness elevates him to the upper echelons of the position.

So when is the breaking point? How many concussions will it take for Roethlisberger to realize that he’s a mortal and for him to start playing like a sensible quarterback – like the oft-concussed Marc Bulger or Jake Delhomme? The NFL and the Steelers say he’s good to go. But smart people said the same about Westbrook, whose All-Pro career may now be over.

Hurrying Roethlisberger back one week removed from a concussion is risky, especially without the protection of standout guard Chris Kemoeatu (knee injury). To throw him into the sea of purple at M&T Bank Stadium under the floodlights of Sunday Night Football –against a particularly unsympathetic Ravens defense is downright dangerous.

Dangerous not just for the Steelers’ 2009 season, and not just for the long term football career of their franchise quarterback, but for Ben Roethlisberger the human being.

This is becoming a sight all-too-common these days.

What are your thoughts on Roethlisberger’s injury? Should he play on Sunday? Be heard in the comments section.

Categories: Pulling No Punches