It used to be a sign of toughness. From pee wee leagues, through high school and colleges, and into the professional ranks.

A player takes a serious blow to the head and is knocked groggy or unconscious on the field. Attendants come out on the field to administer to him, give him some smelling salts, help him to his feet and escort him over to the sidelines.

Several plays later, in some instances while the player is still groggy from the blow, he thrusts on his helmet and trots on the field and back into action.

The crowd roars. His teammates are impressed with his toughness.

It's what is expected.

No more.

Head injuries have taken on a new meaning in the game of football. Players who have suffered a number of them (and there is an estimate that as many as half the NFL players have suffered a concussion of some sort during their careers) are finding out that the symptoms of the injuries often stay with them long after their playing days are over. They wake up every morning with headaches, some suffer occasional loss of memory. Some act a little punchy.

Concussions are getting a lot more attention this season on the professional level. And that's a good thing. Star players like the Eagles' Brian Westbrook, and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger have sat out games because they haven't responded well enough the week after suffering their game injuries. Teams are becoming more cautious and concerned about the problem.

This week the NFL did something about. It acted immediately, not waiting until next season to implement new directives.

According to an Associated Press story, NFL teams now have new, stricter instructions for when players should be allowed to return to games or practices after head injuries, guidelines that go into effect this week.

In the latest step by the league to address a hot-button issue, commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to the 32 clubs Wednesday saying a player who gets a concussion should not return to action on the same day if he shows certain symptoms.

Those include an inability to remember assignments or plays, a gap in memory, persistent dizziness, and persistent headaches.

The old standard, established in 2007, said a player should not be allowed to return to the same game if he lost consciousness.

Wednesday's memo also says players "are to be encouraged to be candid with team medical staffs and fully disclose any signs or symptoms that may be associated with a concussion."

Nearly one-fifth of 160 NFL players surveyed by The Associated Press from Nov. 2-15 replied that they have hidden or played down the effects of a concussion.

The league said its concussion committee, team doctors, outside medical experts and the NFL Players Association developed the new standards.

This is a first step, and not a final remedy. Head injuries will still occur. It's in the violent nature of the game where players are taught at an early age the techniques of tackling and blocking which often use the head. Stricter rules about using the head must be adopted. Scientists must strive to develop safer equipment, especially helmets.

Concussions are no laughing matter. Getting "dinged" and then quickly returning to action is no longer the macho thing to do. Players, and coaches, all must recognize the seriousness of the problem, and everyone who's involved in the game of football, at any level, must strive to make it safer.

Bob Urban

rurban@tnonline.com