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Pro leagues must take every step possible to make sports safer

In a roundabout way, the long absences of Chris Pronger, Sidney Crosby, and the rest of the NHL's Concussion Club represent a good thing.

Chris Pronger is one of the many in the NHL that have joined the Concussion Club. (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)
Chris Pronger is one of the many in the NHL that have joined the Concussion Club. (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)Read more

In a roundabout way, the long absences of Chris Pronger, Sidney Crosby, and the rest of the NHL's Concussion Club represent a good thing.

It is not the number of concussions occurring in hockey, or other sports, that has changed. It is the diagnosis and treatment of the concussions that has changed, and changed dramatically. So while the fans and the teams and the league itself are missing these elite players - which is a bad thing - it is because the long-term welfare of those players is finally being made a top priority.

That is a good thing. And as the Concussion Club grows and grows, so does the urgency for the NHL (and other leagues, which we'll get to) to focus on prevention. Changing the rules to punish head shots is a start, but not nearly enough.

First things first: The Flyers should immediately make visors mandatory for all their players. Claude Giroux's concussion, caused by an accidental knee to the back of his head, would not have been prevented by a visor, but Pronger's almost certainly would have. Ian Laperriere's career-ending concussion would have been prevented or at least mitigated by a visor.

Equipment rules are part of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players union. The NHL should address this as quickly as possible. But the Flyers can simply tell their players they are not taking the ice without visors. Don't want to wear one? Fine, you're a healthy scratch until you do.

The days when players could decide on safety equipment based on appearance, or on some misguided sense of machismo, must be relegated to the past. Period.

In that same spirit, the NHL, the NFL and even Major League Baseball must immediately commit to making the safest, state-of-the-art helmets mandatory. That isn't as simple as it sounds, because there is legitimate debate about the technology, but the top priority must be safety - not appearance or whether the league has a cozy relationship with a particular manufacturer.

Remember when Shane Victorino returned from a concussion wearing that specialized batting helmet? It lasted just a couple of days.

"The problem is, in the player's mind, it's not such an attractive look," Phillies equipment manager Frank Coppenbarger said in September. "They like the style and the fit of the other one a little better, at least at this point."

Plenty of NFL players have tried and rejected helmets designed to prevent or lessen the severity of concussions because they just don't look as cool as the standard headgear.

Former NFL safety Mark Kelso, who was originally drafted by the Eagles, famously wore a Pro-Cap helmet that made him look like the Great Gazoo from The Flintstones. His efforts to get the NFL to approve safer helmets were detailed in a column I wrote.

"I think the most important thing is aesthetics," Kelso said. "Don't think for a minute guys don't stand in front of a mirror before they go out on the field."

That column ran exactly two years ago. We're still talking about the same issues.

The NFL, which will fine a player if his socks aren't worn properly, is powerless to make sure players wear mouthpieces. Those have been shown to absorb impact from shots to the chin.

Hockey helmets are even further behind on the concussion curve, as Hall of Famer Mark Messier told the Associated Press recently.

"We don't look at the helmet as a high-performance piece of equipment," Messier said. "Staying in the game is the first part of being able to perform at a high level."

The truth is, this is an inexact science. These are violent sports and there are going to be injuries, including concussions. But the leagues must - not should, but must - take every possible measure to make these sports safer. Otherwise, they risk fans' becoming less and less able to enjoy watching the games. The price is becoming too high.

Look at boxing. The damage done to its greatest athletes is impossible to ignore, and that makes it awfully difficult to enjoy watching younger boxers attempt to concuss each other. That is almost certainly why there is more interest in the lower weight divisions: Lighter, quicker boxers at least appear to be inflicting less permanent damage on each other's brains than the heavyweights.

Olympic boxing is competitive and, for true fans, satisfying. Boxers wear headgear in the Olympics. Once they go pro, they stop. Why? Because of the assumption fans want to see spectacular knockouts, which translates into brain damage for fighters.

Fans certainly enjoy big hits in hockey and football. The goal is to preserve that excitement without destroying the men who play the games. That may turn out to be impossible.

Until then, the NHL and NFL must exhaust every option. They owe it to their players, their fans, and ultimately to their own continued existence.