- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2013

Football is a violent and dangerous game. I get that. But there has been too much misdirection in the aftermath of Robert Griffin III going down against Seattle.

It’s not hindsight if you questioned the wisdom of continuing to play Griffin after his injured right knee buckled in the first quarter.

It’s not second-guessing if you thought calling his number on running plays foolishly put additional strain on the knee.

And it’s not looking in the rear-view mirror if you believed injury-induced ineffectiveness — not just the risk of further damage — should have led to his benching before the fateful fourth quarter.

Everyone acknowledges the perils of padded human beings slamming into one another repeatedly for 60 minutes. You don’t need abundant foresight to know that bones, brains, limbs and ligaments are put in harm’s way.

The evidence speaks for itself every week as NFL teams report on their wounded.

But the inevitability of injuries doesn’t absolve the league, coaches or players when they disregard preventive measures. While it’s unclear how much pain can be avoided, that’s no excuse for acting as if we’ve learned nothing over the years.

Back in the Dark Age — about three years ago — the NFL refused to acknowledge the sport’s connection to head injuries and brain disease. Testifying before Congress in October 2009, commissioner Roger Goodell also defended the league’s policy on concussions. The scene was reminiscent of tobacco companies denying a link between smoking and lung cancer decades earlier.

The NFL has come a long way since then, spurred by the bevy of lawsuits. But evidence of its negligent past continues to surface. The National Institutes of Health said Thursday that Junior Seau suffered from the same degenerative brain disease — chronic traumatic encephalopathy — found in dozens of other players, some of whom committed suicide like Seau.

“The finding underscores the recognized need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of CTE,” the league said Thursday in a statement. “We have work to do, and we’re doing it.”

Better late than never, although more research and more studies don’t address immediate needs.

The NFL has taken steps in that area by revising tackling standards and protocol for in-game head injuries. That’s great.

But making changes on paper is much easier than making changes within the culture.

The current mindset still is closer to the old psyche, when getting your bell rung and playing through injury were badges of honor while management looked the other way.

Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher contends he would lie about a concussion in order to keep playing.

Teams’ handling of injured players continues to be questioned, from the San Francisco 49ers and Alex Smith (concussion) in Week 10, to the Redskins and RG3.

Two years ago, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was excoriated by current and former players for not finishing the NFC championship game with a torn MCL in his left knee.

(Can we add playing surfaces to the list of concerns? RG3 and Seattle defensive end Chris Clemons suffered major knee injuries on FedEx Field’s deplorable turf, which has been heavily criticized by the Redskins and visiting teams. Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson told USA Today that the field “should be illegal. That’s like working in a sweatshop to me.” Players deserve better.)

But in the NFL ethos, field conditions matter less than body conditions. Players play and coaches coach. And the teams’ medical staffers know which party signs their checks.

The league moved toward addressing that conflict of interest after Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy returned to a game in 2011 after suffering a concussion. Later that season, the NFL announced that independent trainers would be stationed in press boxes and authorized to have players examined for possible head injuries. The union wants to take it a step further by having independent neurologists on the sidelines.

Maybe that should include independent orthopedists, too.

Dr. James Andrews might be the world’s best, but who’s to say he doesn’t get caught up in the emotion — wearing his Redskins cap — with 84,000 fans screaming in his ear?

Andrews has downplayed the “communication problem” on whether RG3 was cleared to return against Baltimore, but it sounds a lot like damage control.

The Redskins kept sending RG3 onto the field Sunday, just like other teams have sent their injured players back into the fray.

RG3 insisted on continuing to play, just like other players have refused to be pulled off the field.

But neither side can be trusted in those situations and neither should have the final say. Making the right call might be difficult, but it should come from an independent voice.

And if a team opted to err on the side of caution anyway, that would be commendable.

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