Last night in an interview with Bob Costas, Hines Ward was asked about the team's attitude toward Roethlisberger sitting out round one of the annual Steelers / Ravens blood-bath. Ward admitted the locker room was "like a 50-50 toss-up" as to whether Ben should be playing or not.
"This game is almost like a playoff game. It's almost a must-win. I could see some players or teammates questioning, like 'It's just a concussion. I've played with a concussion before.' It's almost like a 50-50 toss-up in the locker room: Should he play? Shouldn't he play? It's really hard to say. I've been out there dinged up; the following week, got right back out there. Ben practiced all week. He split time with Dennis Dixon. And then to find out that he's still having some headaches and not playing and it came down to the doctors didn't feel that they were going to clear him or not -- it's hard to say. Unless you're the person [himself]. ... I've lied to a couple of doctors saying I'm straight, I feel good when I know that I'm not really straight."
After the game, Santonio Holmes chimed in. "Only [Roethlisberger] knows how he feels right now. It was coach's decision to not play him. We wanted him to play. We felt like he could play -- that's only the way we felt. He felt like he couldn't go, so he didn't go. We just got to get the job done."
Ward and Holmes' attitude highlights everything that is wrong with the way the NFL and its players have handled injuries in the past; in particular head injuries. Things are changing, and may be changing dramatically, very soon. And it's a good thing for the NFL and for football players everywhere that they are.
As recently as a month ago, I was leaning more in the center on this issue. Do more than we're doing now, don't take overly aggressive measures that compromise the integrity of the game. This specifically regarding the topic of banning contact in high school. The more I read on the issue, the more I'm coming to the view that exceptionally aggressive measures should be taken. I'm not ready to say we should ban contact football, but I'm getting there.
Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson is the prototypical example of what can happen if these head injuries aren't taken seriously. At age 34, his post-concussion syndrome symptoms are so severe they are essentially debilitating.
The most concerning quote from the article I linked is this: "Officially, I've probably only been listed as having three or four concussions in my career," Johnson said. "But the real number is closer to 30, maybe even more. I've been dinged so many times I've lost count."
The problem is that too many times, player's concussions go undiagnosed or simply ignored. And the two biggest reasons for that are that the players want to play through the pain, and that the NFL has a vested interest in having their best guys on the field. Tertiary to those are that fans want the players in the game, and they question their toughness if they sit.
The player's attitude isn't likely to change any time soon. It's too ingrained in the culture of the game. Tom Jackson said tonight on Monday Night Countdown that it wasn't just about wanting to step up for your fellow teammates (which is unquestionably a huge factor to them), but about self-pride. "You feel better about playing hurt. ... That's part of the macho attitude is, 'Boy I was proud of myself when I was able to play, and play well hurt.'" The fan's attitude certainly won't change any time soon...no one has to live Ted Johnson's life; nor have to put themselves in Roethlisberger's shoes Monday morning after watching Dennis Dixon throw an OT interception in a game many think Roethlisberger would have won in regulation.
This leaves it to the NFL to step in, and I give them credit for beginning the process and seemingly being open to making sweeping changes for the betterment of the players.
The problem is, the grumbling will take place over the rules changes. Players' toughness will be questioned. Steve Czaban sarcastically quipped on his morning radio show this morning "Can Tom Brady come out and play?" And guys like Ward and Holmes are openly questioning Roethlisberger's decision to have a seat last night rather than get on the field.
In my mind, Roethlisberger unquestionably made the correct decision. I give him a lot of credit for putting his personal health and safety first, and I give the coaches even more credit for doing so, given Ben's admission that the coaches told him he should sit.
To the NFL fan, we're often too caught up in the moment of the games. We don't think of these players as people. We think of them as football players. We don't see how much it hurts them to step out of bed Monday morning after a brutal game like we saw last night. We don't get to see the guys that struggle to walk ten years after the game. The percent of NFL fans that read the Ten Johnson article can almost assuredly be counted on one hand, if not one finger.
We need to change that attitude and begin to realize that guys like Ben Roethlisberger are people first, and football players second. They give up their bodies and often their health to entertain us. They shouldn't be expected to risk horrifying, debilitating injuries simply to try to prove they're the toughest guy on the field. And in the case of Roethlisberger, they shouldn't be on the field one week after suffering a brain injury. It's dangerous, and could easily result in not only a career-ending injury, but long-term health problems.
And guys like Ward and Holmes absolutely, positively must cease questioning their teammate's toughness and resolve if and when they make a decision that is clearly the best decision for their personal lives.