Knocking heads together at the Concussion Summit

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell ordered every NFL team to attend the Concussion Summit in Chicago on June 19. All 32 team's health and safety committees, doctors and trainers met to discuss a growing concern in the league: post-career illnesses such as depression, Alzheimer's and dementia, believed to be linked to multiple concussions sustained during play.

This landmark meeting had sprung out of player and public outcry over safety and health, spurring Goodell (right) to make some serious changes.

While the NFL has spent decades sponsoring medical research into the long-term effect of concussions, it wasn't until the mainstream media reported on the dramatic health risks to high-profile players that real change began to happen. For example, the sports media, including ESPN, has reported on:

  • the apparent suicide of former Philadelphia safety Andre Waters at age 44 last November
  • the deaths of Pittsburgh offensive linemen Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long after long bouts of depression
  • the February revelation by former New England linebacker Ted Johnson (right) that he suffers from depression

An independent committee of doctors at the Concussion Summit, concluded that in all head injuries, medical decisions should override the player's importance to the team.

Starting points for change: the first raft of rules

Goodell has instated that

  • each player be evaluated for concussion risk and other health issues beginning at training camp
  • an injured player return to the field only with the consent of the team's medical personnel
  • the NFL establish a fund to help with the healthcare costs of former NFL players who suffer from Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia
  • neuropsychological testing for all NFL players become mandatory
  • anyone who suffers a concussion undergo subsequent testing
  • the league establish a whistle-blower program so that players (or team doctors) can anonymously report any concerns, such as when someone feels pressured to return to the field too early after a concussion
  • that every player secure the chin strap on his helmet during play

Now let's go after helmet makers and 'head hunter' players

My wish list for next year's NFL concussion summit includes pushing for better standards by helmet manufacturers, and issuing heavy fines to NFL players who are "head hunting," i.e. deliberately tackling opponents' noggins during play.

Is this single-day, league-wide meeting about concussions enough to change the way NFL owners view head injuries to key players? Or (worst case scenario) is it just more window-dressing to appease the paying public's growing concern for the safety of players?

I believe that we're reaching a point where fans and the media understand the long-term issues of player injuries, and that safety is finally reaching the forefront of human concerns, regardless of the money or careers at stake... As it should be, of course.

Players of all sports will be increasingly demanding the best in medical attention - preventive as well as after care - as an incentive to sign up with a team; that's a great example to set for employees of all workplaces.

This whole move by Commissioner Goodell just reinforces what I've spoken about for years: that nothing happens until the CEO or other top dog of an organization mandates improvement in health and safety practices.

Leaders such as Roger Goodell have the much-needed courage to insist that healthy employees are worth fighting for. My hat's off to him, and to the players and public and media that have driven this huge safety and health issue in football into the light.

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