Sports Injuries

10.15.12

What NFL Could Learn From Washington Nationals About Treating Injured

Baseball’s Nationals sent pitcher Stephen Strasburg home after arm surgery, while the Redskins judged quarterback Robert Griffin III ready to go after a concussion—an example of the NFL’s misguided approach to head trauma that could lead to serious problems like dementia.

Well we made it through an NFL Sunday with only a few concussions. The newly stunned players will be managed with the modern professional football program designed to decrease problems related to head trauma. This approach surely is welcome—the list of suicides and progressive dementia among retired players grows longer and more heartbreaking each year as the reality of the chronic traumatic encephalopathy no longer can be avoided.

But there’s a basic problem with the NFL’s seemingly well-intentioned program—it’s nuts. Completely pointless. Stated another way, it succeeds in helping curb the league’s concussion problem but does absolutely nothing to protect the player who sustains the injury.

Here’s why. The NFL is treating a traumatic brain injury as if it were a sprained ankle. It sort of makes sense, given the sprains, fractures, and bruises that have dominated the sport for so long. You rest a little, tape it up, maybe miss a week or two, and once you can bear weight, you’re good to go. But a brain is not an ankle, and brain injury isn’t “healed up” once the person’s thinking is clear and his headache has vanished. Concussions do their damage by cumulative effect—resolution of today’s symptoms is fine and dandy, but has no impact on the ultimate consequence of the injury.

The point isn’t how you feel in 2012, it’s how you’re gonna be in 2022 and 2032. The NFL’s current approach is like telling a three-pack-a-day smoker who develops a cold to stop smoking till the cold clears—and then to greenlight a resumption of smoking three packs. Yes, the strategy helps his cough clear up in 2012, but it does zero to diminish the real issue—his risk of developing lung cancer a decade or two down the line.

With its current policy, the NFL is refeeding three packs a day to its players as soon as their condition clears. What’s unclear is whether league officials actually think their program is doing anything or whether they simply are trying to deflect bad press and cynically ride the approach as long as they can then move onto some plan B once the jig is up.

Surely no owner or league president is interested in hurting players or in perpetuating mistakes related to health. But in considering their basic view, it’s worth contrasting the different approaches two Washington, D.C., teams have taken to injuries incurred by their star players.

In baseball, pitcher Stephen Strasburg this year led the Washington Nationals to their first pennant ever and the first for a baseball team in the nation’s capital in about 80 years. But he had undergone a major arm operation last season—the sort that, it is feared, could recur with overexertion. So what did the team, although in need of his talents, do with their star player? They told him to go home, to stop playing, to go away: his arm was more important than this one season’s success. (Author’s note: in his absence, the team was defeated in the playoffs.)

In contrast, the Washington Redskins football team treated their franchise star differently. Quarterback Robert Griffin III sustained a concussion last week, but was judged clear and ready to go—he passed the tests and played well in yesterday’s game. He was as good as new, seemingly, though the impact of last week’s injury on his cognitive abilities as an older man cannot be assessed.

The difference in approaches is quite simple and extremely sad. The teams just don’t worry about what might happen in 10 or 20 years. They are paying for product now—the future be damned. Strasburg’s shelf life as a player might be extended by the sit-down, whereas Griffin, the football player, may well have several more concussions and be on target to develop dementia—but it won’t affect his shelf life at all. Those problems will become his problems out in the roaring ‘20s, when someone else owns the team. The can—in this case, Griffin’s 22-year-old brain—is simply being kicked down the road till it is someone else’s problem.

The NFL is treating a traumatic brain injury as if it were a sprained ankle.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of this negligent approach is not that players are willing to get turned into chopped liver or that so little serious consideration is being given to what to do now (stop playing the game, anyone?). It’s that this contemptuous disregard for workers’ health (and professional athletes are workers) is occurring at a moment in the United States when practically everything is compensable. A secretary with a sore wrist and possible carpal tunnel is afforded more attention, support, and useful care than a glamorous quarterback who got his bell rung.

But I suppose that is the secret of the success of sports, football in particular. It’s the last place where lily-livered, girly-man things like rules and caution and consequences are roundly ignored. Instead, red-meat passions rule the day. And here’s the best part: for those of us glued for a few hours to the TV set every week to experience some of that frontier-man buzz we seem to need, the plot stops as soon as we click off the tube. The problem is that for the players, the story is just beginning.