I've written at length a couple of times about baseball's increased sensitivity to the long-term dangers posed by concussions. Relative to the NFL and other major sports, Major League Baseball has been ahead of the curve, and today in conjunction with the players' union they took another bold step forward by introducing a seven-day disabled list specifically for players who have sustained concussions. The list is designed to prevent teams from pressing their players into returning prematurely and to provide some short-term roster relief.
Seven days is the minimum for the list, which will be used on a trial basis this year. Any player who remains on it for more than 14 days will automatically transfer to the 15-day disabled list. Furthermore, as part of MLB's policy, the baseline neurological exams to which I referred in the context of Jorge Posada's concussion-related issues are now mandatory each spring and whenever a player joins a new team. Via USA Today, the key components of the policy:
1. Mandatory baseline neuropsychological testing requirements for players and umpires during Spring Training, or when a player joins a club during the season, formalizing a process that most individual Clubs follow;
2. Protocols for evaluating players and umpires for a possible concussion, including during incidents typically associated with a high risk, such as being hit in the head a by a pitched, batted or thrown ball or by a bat; being in a collision with a player, umpire or fixed object; or any time when the head or neck of a player or an umpire is forcibly rotated;
3. The establishment of a seven-day disabled list for concussions, which will aim to allow concussions to clear, prevent players from returning prematurely and give clubs a full complement of players in one's absence; any player on the seven-day DL for more than 14 days will automatically and retroactively be transferred to the 15-day DL, effective with the first day of the initial placement, and with the prior 14 days applying to the initial 15-day maximum term; implemented on a trial basis for the 2011 season;
4. Protocols for clearing a concussed player or umpire to return to activity; prior to the time that a concussed player is permitted to play in any game (including Major League, Minor League or extended Spring Training games), the Club must submit a "Return to Play" form to MLB's Medical Director; submission of the form is required irrespective of whether the player was placed on the disabled list.
Seven days certainly isn't enough for the most severe concussion symptoms to abate, but the new list will reduce the temptation of teams to simply stash somebody on the bench "until the cobwebs clear," so to speak. The Yankees were able to do that with Posada last fall due to September roster expansion, but as we've seen, other teams have bungled that process and sent their players back onto the field too early, most notably the Mets with regards to Ryan Church and Jason Bay.
Bay, who missed most of the second half of last season due to his concussion, finally appears to be symptom-free, though he may start the year on the disabled list for an unrelated abdominal injury. Meanwhile, Justin Morneau, who missed all of the second half of last season as well as the postseason, is slated to be in the Twins' lineup on opening day. Note also that the Yankees, for all of their catching concerns, have held to their promise not to use Posada behind the plate this spring.
Shortly after publishing the latest of my Posada-related concussion updates, I came across a fine article from the Toronto Globe and Mail, written by Ken Dryden, a fascinating Renaissance man who after a brief but spectacular career as a goalie for the Montreal Canadiens (eight seasons, six Stanley Cups, five Vezina trophies as the NHL's top goaltender, and a spot in the Hall of Fame) earned his law degree from McGill University and is now a member of the Canadian Pariament. Born in 1947, Dryden didn't even begin wearing a mask to play goalie until 1965, and his NHL career predated the days of mandatory helmets. "How could we be so stupid?" is both the title and thrust of his article, which places the concussion danger posed by hockey in the context not only of other sports' concussion issues, but also larger scientific and social issues:
Why would we ever have believed that when the dizziness goes away, everything goes back as it had been before? All the little hits, scores of them in every game, so inconsequential that we don't even know they've occurred – how could we not have known? How could we be so stupid?
I feel the same when I remember that the effects of smoking or of drunk driving were ignored for so long. I feel it when I think of women in the past having no right to vote and few rights of any kind, and when I think about slavery: How could people 50, 100 or 200 years ago not have known? How could they be so stupid?
I wonder what will make people say that about us 50 years from now. What are the big things we might be getting really wrong? Chemicals in our foods? Genetic modifications gone wrong? Climate change?
In sports, I think, the haunting question will be about head injuries. It wasn't until 1943 in the National Football League that helmets became mandatory; in the National Hockey League, not until 36 years after that, in 1979. The first goalie mask wasn't worn in the NHL until 1959.
... What is our answer to those voices 50 years into the future? We can only say that we didn't want to know. We thought – we hoped – there wasn't a problem, because if there were, something would need to be done, and we didn't want to do it.
Hockey may be behind the curve, but thankfully, baseball is not. Kudos to the commissioner's office and the players' union for recognizing the importance of this issue and for working together towards a sensible protocol.