To the romanticism of a small town, fan-owned team winning it all and the sheer impossibility of rooting for the thuggish Ben Rothelisberger, add this as one more reason I’ll be pulling for the Packers on Sunday. As Alan Schwarz notes today in the Times, this year’s two Super Bowl participants have taken very different approaches to the not-so-laughing matter of head injuries in football. The Steelers, ever the league’s tough guys, haven’t taken too kindly to the NFL’s efforts this year to introduce at least a modicum of safety to its brain damage-inducing product. Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who’s paid upwards of $125,000 in fines for illegal hits this season, ridiculed the league’s crackdown on helmet-to-helmet contact a few days ago in a message for commissioner Roger Goodell: “I just want to tackle them softly on the ground and, if y’all can, we’ll lay a pillow down where I’m going to tackle them, so they don’t hit the ground too hard, Mr. Goodell.”
The Packers, on the other hand, seem to at least get that the prospect of irreparable brain damage should be treated with some degree of seriousness. After Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers suffered a concussion in a December game against the Lions, wide receiver Donald Driver urged his teammate to take it easy. “I went behind him and told him that this game is just a game,” Driver recalled saying. “Your life is more important than the game.” Asked whether he would ever dispense similar advice to his own quarterback, Rothelisberger, who has suffered multiple concussions, Steelers receiver Hines Ward replied, “For me, I’ve been in that situation. I wanted to be out there fighting. To each his own. Who am I to tell somebody what not to do?”
It was a reply befitting the emotional leader of the hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners crew from Pittsburgh, but the Steeler mentality is becoming increasingly untenable amid our growing understanding of football’s true neurological costs. A recent study found retired NFL players between 30 and 49 to be 19 times more likely than others in their age cohort to suffer from Alzheimer’s, dementia or other memory-related disorders. Whether a few more Donald Drivers and a few fewer Hines Wards in the league is going to fix that, I’m not holding my breath, but if the men in green do come off the field Sunday holding the Lombardi trophy, I’ll gladly chalk it up as a victory, however small, for that all-too-precious commodity in our sporting culture of common sense.