Players to be given brain activity exams

Updated: February 25, 2010, 6:26 PM ET
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- The focus on head injuries in pro football is turning to this year's potential draft picks.

For the first time, all 329 invited players at this week's NFL scouting combine will be given a baseline brain activity exam -- called the ImPACT test -- and will likely face more grilling than previous classes did about their concussion histories. Those implementing the changes call it smart football.

"We're testing everybody, not just at-risk athletes who have had more than one concussion," said Dr. Art Rettig, an orthopedic surgeon at Methodist Sports Medicine in Indianapolis, which runs the medical part of the combine. "Everybody will have this ImPACT test so they will have a baseline, and whatever team they end up with will be sent that baseline information."

That hasn't been standard operating procedure in past years, though all 32 teams individually now use similar tests on their own. Doctors compare pre-injury and post-injury answers to determine whether a player can safely return from a head injury.

By testing everyone at the combine, the league will have a more standardized way of evaluating players and potentially collecting data about repeated hits to the head.

It's the latest step in a movement that started to gain momentum last season, particularly after a study for the league by researchers at the University of Michigan found retired players may have a higher-than-normal rate of Alzheimer's disease and other memory problems.

The league has since adopted stricter policies on allowing players to return to the field after big collisions. Lawmakers in Congress and state legislatures have also jumped into the discussion, and the NCAA is considering additional ways to reduce head injuries in football.

On Wednesday, the league's competition committee heard presentations about helmet designs that could reduce the risk of head injuries. No decisions are expected before next month's owners' meeting.

"We have to admit, this is a tough game, a violent game, a collision game," said John Madden, a Hall of Fame coach, former television analyst and now a consultant to the NFL. "How do we make it safer? We have to educate players and coaches and trainers, equipment is another way and rules changes are another way. But it can't be just any one of those things. It has to be all of them together."

The message seems to be getting through.

On Thursday, NFL Players Association representatives met with the competition committee to discuss possible rules changes along with the possibility of limiting offseason workouts and contact at practices. Nobody is yet saying how much contact could be scaled back.

As for rules changes, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell used the example of expanding the definition of a defenseless receiver. One possibility would be giving receivers more than the current two steps before they are considered a runner.

Though Goodell wants to adopt new safety measures quickly, finding agreement may be tricky.

"We showed them [players] some videos of things we think could be taken out and it's not universal," Goodell said. "It's about how we define the rule and then how do we teach it."

Because management and labor may disagree about specifics, the union is also studying the issue.

On Friday, the NFLPA will hold its second Player Safety and Welfare Summit in Indy, an all-day event that gives manufacturers a platform to discuss products and services to make the game safer. Later that evening, team doctors will have their annual scientific meeting to discuss better treatments for players. Part of the discussion, Rettig said, will focus on head injuries.

Rettig, the Indianapolis Colts team physician, and other doctors will spend four days poking and prodding players to make sure teams are investing in athletes with a clean bill of health -- and that goes beyond brain trauma. After Chicago Bears defensive end Gaines Adams died in January from a heart attack, there is also renewed interest in cardiology issues.

"Invariably we have one or two players that are found to have [medical] conditions that are not reported, that are life-threatening in some cases," Colts president Bill Polian said.

But all players could face new rounds of questioning during the 15-minute team interviews.

Traditionally, decision-makers such as Polian and Minnesota's Rick Spielman have used the allotted time to measure football aptitude, whether it's through questions and answers or psychological tests.

This year, the expanded discussions may include head injuries.

"You may talk about it a little bit more if a guy had a concussion history coming out of college, that you may want to dab into that a little bit deeper just to make sure," Spielman said this week.

The question: How many of the answers will be the whole truth?

NFL prospects have a vested interest in making it through the evaluation process without any red flags, which could send them skidding down the draft board and cost them millions.

"That's always an issue not only with concussions but with all injuries, trying to improve status by minimizing other injuries," Rettig said. "I think that's one area where the ImPACT test will help us. The ImPACT might pick up the problems."


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press