Dangerous head games: Awareness of concussions improves, but NFL players continue to put long-term health at risk

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009

As the Washington Redskins ran plays in preparation for Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys, Clinton Portis, their Pro Bowl running back, wasn't even on the sideline of the practice field. Portis is still dealing with the headaches caused by bright lights, still squinting at the screen of his cellphone at night, still trying to overcome the aftereffects of the concussion he suffered Nov. 8 at Atlanta on a play he still doesn't remember.

Taking the ball as the new, first-string running back in practice was Ladell Betts, who said he gets a "dazed" feeling, "honestly, probably once or twice a game," the result of the kind of hits to the head that are common in NFL games. Betts's backup was Rock Cartwright, who thought back on his own career and said, "I might have had a concussion, but I didn't report it."

The culture in the NFL regarding concussions is changing, players, coaches, league officials and outside experts say. But even cursory conversations with players show that the changes in attitude are gradual in a league in which every game is an event, every Sunday a chance for a career to be ended or extended.

The 2009 season has featured injuries to marquee players Portis and Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, a congressional hearing on the impact of head injuries from football and the formation of a committee of current and former coaches to discuss player safety. Now, the players' union has requested the ouster of the co-chairman of the NFL's committee on concussions because of viewpoints that discredit research that suggests football careers can lead to dementia and other long-range cognitive problems.

Even with all that attention, when Cartwright spoke in the Redskins' locker room about his might-have-been-a-concussion incident two years ago against the New York Giants, he laughed at the memory. His head rang, and he tried to clear it. When it did, he went back in the game.

"When I got hit, you know how you hit a bell and it vibrates and shakes?" said Cartwright, an eight-year veteran. "That's how my brain was. It took me like 10 minutes to get back to myself."

Early optimism fades

Redskins Coach Jim Zorn said repeatedly that the team would handle Portis "cautiously" after the veteran running back was knocked out while being tackled by two Falcons, and on Friday Portis traveled to Pittsburgh to see another specialist. But a day after the incident, Zorn didn't immediately rule out Portis for last week's game against Denver. Similarly, when Westbrook was knocked out by the knee of Redskins linebacker London Fletcher Oct. 26 -- and lay motionless on the FedEx Field turf before he was helped off -- Eagles Coach Andy Reid initially spoke of Westbrook perhaps being ready for Philadelphia's next game, which was only six days later.

Westbrook ended up sitting out two games, returned last week against San Diego, and suffered another concussion on a play that, according to his brother, Redskins cornerback Byron Westbrook, "it seemed like he didn't get hit that hard." Now, at least in part because one concussion can make recurrences more likely, the elder Westbrook's season, and possibly career, are in question. And the calls for further education of players and coaches -- from youth leagues to the NFL -- are increasingly fervent.

"This is too urgent to think we couldn't put together a PowerPoint presentation in an hour and show it to 1,000 players next week," said Chris Nowinski, a former football player at Harvard and professional wrestler who helped found the Sports Legacy Institute, which researches concussions. "That's a joke that they won't tell the players the truth. The pamphlet they give them is not helpful. It does not tell them the scope of the problem. It's fantastic it's being discussed and guys are getting time off, but nobody should believe this alone is going to change outcomes."

Last month, Nowinski testified before the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), called for a hearing aimed at placing focus on the issue. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in his testimony, "We know that concussions are a serious matter and that they require special attention and treatment."

Goodell has met privately with DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL Players Association, about the matter, and he appointed former NFL coach and longtime broadcaster John Madden as the head of a panel of coaches that discusses safety issues.

The NFLPA has also gotten involved. Last week, the players' association said it was requesting the removal of Ira Casson, the co-chairman of the NFL's committee on concussions, a development first reported by the New York Times. Casson, a neurologist, did not appear at the congressional hearing, and he has dismissed studies that have linked football with brain problems in former players.

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