Troy Polamalu, NFL, Concussions, and Cheating the System

Posted on July 19, 2012 | in Change Management, Error-Proofing, Football, Goal Setting, Sports, Teamwork | by

The NFL is currently in the midst of a large lawsuit on behalf of retired players who are suing the league for health-related issues caused by on-field concussions during their playing days.

So on Wednesday, when Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu revealed that he has lied to the Steelers’ medical staff about head injuries he’s suffered on the field so he could continue playing, you can bet that the NFL’s collective ears perked up. He’s not the only one – Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher admits he has lied about head injuries as well.

Concussions and post-career quality-of-life for players are hot-button issues for the NFL right now and there is an ongoing debate as to the extent the NFL is responsible for concussions players suffer during games in exchange for the opportunity to play in the country’s most popular sport.

The entire situation regarding the history of concussions and the long-term effects suffered by players will be a blog post for another day, but these revelations by Polamalu and Urlacher bring up another key idea behind prevention – gaming the system put in place to protect players and the lack of a foolproof countermeasure.

It’s hard for a company or organization’s culture to get behind safety as a #1 priority when clearly there are other business-related priorities that tend to get management fired up when things go wrong – specifically, production and productivity. This goes back to company philosophies and the difference behind a stated philosophy and one that is demonstrated.

So if an organization and its supporters (shareholders and fans) are going to place greater demonstrated emphasis on productivity (on the balance sheet or on the gridiron) than on safety, then its constituents (employees and players) will follow suit.

This is not to say that the NFL sees things this way. They very well might not, especially in light of the lawsuit and future longevity of the league. But what would really benefit the league to help overcome this culture is the implementation of a foolproof test to determine if a player has received a concussion and giving genuine teeth to a safety policy.

When it comes to post-event (after a player has received a blow to the head) examinations by team physicians and staff, the ideal test would be one that is both conclusive and expedient – definitive enough to identify a concussion yet quick enough to administer that a player that has NOT received a concussion can resume playing in the game as quickly as possible.

The Mayo Clinic website indicates that a conclusive test does exist (aside from conditions indicated as requiring a CT scan). A conclusive (read: foolproof) test on the field or sidelines would appear to be somewhat brief, seeing how it would require limited equipment and would check things like reflexes, strength, memory, vision, and hearing. These tests might be hard to administer on the field but perhaps on the sidelines the player would be away from the action for only a couple of plays. I’ve also heard of teams establishing baselines for each player for those tests, and comparing post-event tests to those baselines.

So how is it that the system can still be cheated?

Are the baselines inaccurately collected or calibrated? Do players know this? Are physicians not administering on-field tests properly? Does the NFL have a concussions handling procedure?

The revelations by Polamalu and Urlacher are dangerous and alarming. Are the claims being vetted by the NFL? Is the NFL prepared to foolproof the system with a poka-yoke concussion examination?

If the NFL is unable to change the culture of putting the success of the team above the health of a player, maybe the league should institute a procedure that takes the cultural influence out of the equation.

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