Sam Donnellon: Westbrook should retire before another concussion

Brian Westbrook, running during second quarter, was injured later in Sunday's game.
Brian Westbrook, running during second quarter, was injured later in Sunday's game.
Posted: November 17, 2009

I AM NOT a neurologist, nor do I play one in print or on television. But if "the No. 1 thing is Brian's health," as Andy Reid said yesterday, then there really is only one thing for Brian Westbrook to do:

Retire. Immediately.

"Obviously we're going to check with experts and make sure that we listen to them like we did before," Reid said at his Monday press conference.

Note to staff: Find some other experts.

If the No. 1 thing really is Brian's health.

Find ones with no links to the NFL, to the Eagles. Ask the ones who have advised Keith Primeau or Eric Lindros, or any of the neurologists and neurosurgeons who have picked up the phone over the last decade to speak to reporters about the possible long-term effects from recurring concussions.

As most of you know, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was called before Congress in October to discuss this subject and what the league was doing about it. Goodell said they were involved in a study. He was asked if he thought there was a link between multiple head injuries and dementia and Alzheimer's. He said he isn't a doctor.

Dr. Ira Casson is. He is also co-chair of NFL's committee on concussions, a paid gig. He did not attend the congressional hearing, but has said in the past that "despite what public perception might be, there is no valid scientific evidence that a career in the NFL, no matter how many concussions, is related to chronic brain damage."

Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., played a TV interview of Casson during the hearings in which he denied evidence of a link between multiple head injuries in NFL players with brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer's. She likened it to tobacco companies denying a link between smoking and health damage in the 1990s.

First reported in September, a University of Michigan survey of more than 1,000 retired NFL players found that 6.1 percent aged 50 and older reported that they had received a dementia-related diagnosis. That's five times the national average of 1.2 percent, but here's the kicker - players ages 30 through 49 reported dementia-related diagnoses at a rate of 1.9 percent, 19 times higher than the national average.

The NFL commissioned the study. But when it was released, the response was not "proof at last." It was the opposite. Casson minimalized it, called it a start. Another NFL medical adviser suggested it was flawed and touted the NFL's study of less players, due out in a few years, overseen by Casson.

Andy Reid is not a bad guy. He's not a callous guy. I believe him when he says, "You can put football aside and make sure that he's taken care of here."

I also believe he doesn't have the necessary background or advice, or anything, to determine Westbrook's health, or whether he should ever wear the pads again. The experience of Lindros, of Primeau, of even Simon Gagne, suggests that if the Eagles had waited a few months, maybe even until 2010, Westbrook might have been less vulnerable to the recurrence suffered Sunday when he was sandwiched between Jason Avant and Eric Weddle. Primeau's troubles began when a second concussion followed too closely from the first. Lindros, too, Gagne, too.

I'm no doctor, but I've been told at least a dozen times that when the brain gets moved enough to cause a concussion, it often doesn't take the same level of trauma to cause another. And it takes its own sweet time to mend, no matter how symptomless you feel. I'm no doctor, but the increase in the size of players each season, and the increasingly unforgiving nature of the plastic-capped equipment they wear, suggests these hits are only becoming more damaging, both in the short and long term.

I asked Reid whether he would like the league to mandate rules about when players are able to play after suffering a concussion, to take it out of the realm of both the club and athlete.

"I've lived without those rules throughout my NFL career," he said, and then expressed faith that the league would do "the right thing for these type of situations."

Someday, maybe. You hope. Now? Well, it's hard to see the NFL's response up to this point as anything short of stalling. There's a lot of money at stake for them, in potential lawsuits, benefit payouts and lost salaries. After disgruntled NFL retirees induced the last round of congressional hearings in 2007, a 144-page report criticized the league's disability and retirement plan, run jointly by the league and the union, as deeply flawed.

Westbrook will make a base salary of $5.6 million this season, and is due another $7 to 8 million next year. It's a lot of money to walk away from, and at age 30, a lot of what-might-have-been to walk away from, too.

Playing again this season, though - or ever again - is walking into a lot of what-might-be, a lot of unneeded and unnerving uncertainty. He's already given his heart and soul to this team. He should leave, while he can, with the rest of it intact.

And after all the experts have weighed in, Andy should tell him that.

If the No 1 thing here is Brian's health.

Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/donnellon.

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