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NFL, union begin approving independent neurologists for each team

WASHINGTON -- The NFL and its players union have approved independent doctors to evaluate head injuries for about half of the league's 32 teams as part of a new program.

The NFL Players Association medical director, Dr. Thom Mayer, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday that "the quality of people brought forward has been first rate" and none of the doctors proposed by teams has been rejected so far.

The NFL said Sunday THAT it is requiring teams to find outside experts in neurology to aid their medical staffs when players sustain concussions. Mayer and the NFL's medical adviser are vetting the doctors jointly, a process that began in recent weeks, according to Mayer.

"The plan is simply to ensure that every team has a highly qualified neurologist or neurosurgeon working with its medical staff," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote in an e-mail to the AP. "We are working with the union to identify and mutually approve those specialists for each team."

There is no deadline for implementing the new setup across the league, but doctors will start working with teams "as soon as the specialist is selected and on board," Aiello wrote.

Aiello cited the Pittsburgh Steelers as an example of a team that already has an arrangement in place, with the doctors that Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook recently went to see about his concussion.

Some details of the program still need to be figured out, according to Mayer, such as who will pay the independent doctors, whether the doctors will be on the sidelines at games, and, if so, whether there would be one expert present per team or one per game.

"We are considering whether they should be paid by the teams, by the league or frankly by the union," Mayer said.

During interviews with 160 NFL players conducted by The Associated Press from Nov. 2-15, 30 replied they have hidden or played down the effects of a concussion. Half said they have sustained at least one concussion while playing football.

High-profile players such as Westbrook and Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis have missed games in recent weeks because of head injuries.

On Sunday, the two starting quarterbacks from last season's Super Bowl -- Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals -- left their teams' games after taking blows to the head. Three members of the St. Louis Rams -- quarterback Marc Bulger, linebacker Chris Chamberlain and offensive tackle Jason Smith -- are slated to be tested for possible concussions Tuesday.

These newly appointed neurologists would be "independent of the teams themselves, and they're rendering an opinion that is guided by expertise in concussions," Mayer said. "They're not part of the club medical staff, so they're an independent voice with regard to whether the player's ready to return or not."

In discussing the new policy about independent neurologists during an NBC appearance on Sunday night, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said: "We want to give players the best medical advice. This is a chance for us to expand that and bring more people into the circle to make sure we're making the best decisions for our players in the long term."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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