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Medical community at odds with injuries



Published: Thu, October 26, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Questionable is a word used a lot around the NFL. It's there every week in the injury reports that bookies and bettors like to study so much, usually stuck somewhere in between probable and doubtful.

Ben Roethlisberger, who was last seen sprawled unconscious on the field in Atlanta, is questionable this week. The Pittsburgh Steelers said so, meaning their star quarterback may or may not play Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

Questionable. It's a word that can be used to describe many things.

Let's begin with the judgment of anyone involved with the Steelers who actually believes it is a good idea to rush back Roethlisberger after two concussions in four months.

Head injury one Sunday, starting nod the next. You don't need a degree in neurology to figure out something is wrong with this equation.

Forced to retire

Concussions forced two other quarterbacks out of the game in recent years. Troy Aikman and Steve Young retired early because the cumulative effect of concussions, and they're hardly alone among NFL alumni.

Current players aren't faring much better.

Quarterbacks Charlie Frye and Steve McNair recently left games with concussions and so did Minnesota receiver Troy Williamson.

Carolina linebacker Dan Morgan's season is over, and the horrifying image of Chiefs quarterback Trent Green having his head slammed to the ground in the first game of the season is an indelible one.

Concussions, it seems, are the NFL's dirty little secret. It's not just that they happen so often, but that the league doesn't seem to be doing much about it.

Sure, the NFL says it has had a committee of doctors studying them since 1994. But experts in the field say the league's studies are flawed, use suspect data, and don't stand up to peer review.

So when the NFL says no evidence has been found that brain function declines as a result of a concussion, the news is greeted with skepticism in the medical community.

Different take

"What the NFL allegedly finds is totally at odds with scores of publications that are out there," said Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurologist and leading expert in brain injuries at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "The stuff the NFL is putting out is just not the way the thinking is in the community of sports medicine and specialists with expertise in this area."

Among those is a recent study by the University of North Carolina, which reported 10 percent of retired NFL players say concussions have had a permanent effect on their ability to think and remember things as they've gotten older.

Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson of the New York Giants is one of them. He estimates he had a dozen or more "bell-ringers" in his career, though he wasn't aware they were concussions. Carson said he has long had memory problems because of postconcussion syndrome.

For others, it's even worse.

Former Steelers lineman Terry Long died last year at the age of 45 from a brain inflammation that resulted, in part, from repeated head injuries. Fellow Steelers center Mike Webster was diagnosed with football-induced dementia before he died at the age of 50.

Dismissing the problem

Coaches, though, seem to regard them as minor irritants.

Vikings coach Brad Childress offered his own diagnosis the other day after Williamson was injured.

"He does know what time zone we're in right now, and he can read a clock. So he's going to be OK," Childress said.

The NFL is filled with violent helmet-to-helmet tackles and players with bad intentions.

In boxing, a fighter knocked out is automatically suspended for 60 days. In the NFL, a player knocked unconscious has returned to play in the same game.

Roethlisberger didn't go back into the game last Sunday, though he wanted to. He also wants to play this Sunday.

"If I get cleared I'm going to beg and plead to be out there," he said.

Hopefully, no one will be listening. Hopefully, the Super Bowl champions, 2-4 so far this season, will resist the temptation to put him in.

Roethlisberger has no business playing Sunday. There's a good argument to be made he shouldn't play again this year.

Big Ben has only one career -- and only one life.

It's up to those around him to make sure neither is cut short.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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