Injuries warn against 18 NFL games

The images from this past NFL Sunday are hard to stomach.

• Philadelphia wide receiver DeSean Jackson needing two people to help him leave the field after Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson leveled him with a devastating hit that gave both players a concussion. Jackson's concussion was characterized as "severe."

• Detroit linebacker Zack Follett on a stretcher -- he was later hospitalized -- after a helmet-to-helmet collision with the Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul during a fourth-quarter kickoff return. Doctors later reported Follett had movement in all his extremities.

Josh Cribbs lying motionless after Pittsburgh's James Harrison barreled into Cribbs' helmet in the second quarter -- even though it appeared Harrison's teammate LaMarr Woodley had Cribbs securely wrapped up. Later in the same quarter, Harrison also knocked Mohamed Massaquoi out of the game with a head injury.

Todd Heap's mouth guard flying out after New England's Brandon Meriweather smashed into him. Heap returned to the game, and afterward said he didn't have a concussion.

As ugly as Sunday's carnage was, the numerous head injuries might be what finally captures the attention of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and league owners, who are strongly pushing for an 18-game regular-season schedule.

Sunday's proliferation of head injuries should be a sobering reminder to the NFL decision-makers that putting money over integrity will only further jeopardize the health of NFL players.

There's no question an 18-game regular-season schedule would be warmly greeted by fans, advertisers, broadcasters and whoever else wants a piece of the NFL gold rush.

But after Sunday, it's fair to question whether expanding the NFL season is even morally appropriate.

"Sixteen games are enough," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis told reporters in late August. "I mean, you're talking to someone who has been in this business for 15 years. We're not automobiles. We're not machines. We're humans."

And I can't help but wonder if the NFL thinks football-playing humans have a price tag.

The NFL grew to be a billion-dollar empire and the most popular sport in America on a foundation of many smart decisions.

The smartest decision the NFL could make now is to do all it can to protect the health of its players. I'm a proponent of the league really lowering the boom on players who headhunt in games. The league should not only stiffen fines, but also eject and suspend players for illegal hits.

But that's not enough.

I understand that injuries and collisions are as intrinsic to football as sunshine is to the growth of plants. And no matter whether the schedule is eight games or 18, violence in an NFL game is inevitable. Players will always get hurt.

It just doesn't make sense to expose players to more injuries. And it doesn't make sense to jeopardize the credibility of the most well-run professional league in sports.

The Philadelphia Eagles have six players who have suffered concussions this season, including current starting quarterback Kevin Kolb. That number could grow in the remaining 10 games, and just imagine what that number might be if they played an 18-game schedule.

In recent years, the league has made progress in protecting players from head injuries.

After Congress decided to examine the impact of concussions on NFL players, the league changed its policy last year to expand the list of symptoms that prohibit players from returning to play the same day a concussion is suffered.

It was a step in the right direction, but an 18-game schedule -- which Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian in a "very imprecise" manner has said was a done deal -- would undermine all the progress the league has made. It's hypocritical of the league to say it cares about the players' well-being, then turn around and provide more opportunities for players to be hurt.

It's already difficult enough protecting the players from themselves. Even research suggesting continuous head injuries can be ultimately catastrophic doesn't stop players from lying about how hurt they are, or subscribing to the mentality that being a little woozy is just part of the game.

The NFL has a chance to be a role model for the players and prove it's not always about the money.

Unless, of course, the league thinks it's good business for us to see players' knees buckling as they try to stand upright, and finishing their careers with mangled bodies and serious neurological problems.

They could end up like Hall of Fame offensive lineman Mike Webster, who was diagnosed with brain damage in 1999 after taking too many hits to the head during his 16-year career. In 2002, Webster, who was periodically homeless, died of a heart attack at 50 years old.

Much like Sunday, those are images none of us wants to see.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.