Sports fans aren't supposed to talk about concussions. It doesn't take access to Roger Goodell's voice mail to realize head trauma is perhaps the most taboo topic in sports at the moment, particularly in the NFL, a league where every defender is armed with a missile on their head and doesn't think twice about launching it into the opposition. It's no coincidence the NFL revises its stance on concussions annually, usually after one scary and embarrassing incident follows the next. Particularly over the last two years, we've seen first-hand how somber head trauma is and how seriously it's treated across the four major professional sports leagues.
Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby is the face of the NHL, but that didn't stop the league from sitting him 10 and a half months following a concussion last season. This year, after Crosby returned to the ice for eight games, concussion-like symptoms came back and he has not played since. Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins slugger and 2006 AL MVP, missed the entire second half of the 2010 season after suffering a concussion. Before this NBA season began, the league revised its concussion protocol, too.
ESPN has a nice overview of concussion policies for each major sport. Here's the latest from the NBA:
In 2011, the NBA instituted a league-wide policy on the treatment of concussions. The league hired Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher as the director of the league's concussion program. The NBA concussion management program provides annual training to players and tam personnell [sic], along with annual baseline testing of players. When a player is believed to have suffered a concussion, he'll undergo customized post-injury assessment, and all return-to-play decisions will be discussed with Dr. Kutcher.
It's a topic that unfortunately became relevant in Chicago sports a day ago. It was reported that an "upper body injury" to Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews was actually a concussion Toews may or may not have been trying to hide from his bosses. It's believed Toews sustained the injury on the Blackhawks' recent road trip; you know, the one in which Chicago saw its losing streak reach nine games. Bulls guard C.J. Watson also missed his second straight game on Wednesday vs. the Milwaukee Bucks with a mild concussion after colliding with New Jersey Nets forward Kris Humphries on Saturday. The injury was first reported as a migraine. Watson said he wanted to play against the Atlanta Hawks during a Monday matinee at the United Center, but league officials wouldn't stand for it.
Both examples only reinforce the "brawn over brains" mentality that remains prevalent in sports. The contemporary athlete has been wired this way for decades; they need to be saved from themselves. The line between backyard toughness and permanent psychological damage is a fine one, and it doesn't take long to find cautionary tales.
Just over a year ago, Dave Duerson, forever immortalized in this city as a safety on the '85 Bears, was found dead in his Florida home after shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun. Before puling the trigger, Duerson texted his family to say he wanted his brain to be used for research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy caused by playing pro football.
Bears star Brian Urlacher furthered the issue recently with candid remarks to HBO's "Real Sports":
"If I have a concussion these days, I'm going to say something happened to my toe or knee just to get my bearings for a few plays," he said. "I'm not going to sit in there and say I got a concussion, I can't go in there the rest of the game."
Perhaps the most discouraging thing about Urlacher's comments is how honest they are. These are the things that go through the minds of pro athletes until those minds stop functioning properly. It takes a culture change to erase this type of warrior's mentality, and it starts with coaches at the youth levels. For the foreseeable future, though, the majority of athletes will think they can conquer anything, even a little dizziness.
Toews and Watson could be back this week, or could be out for an extended period. That's the thing with head trauma: you never really know. Sports fans have a way of treating games big and small like a matter of life and death, but occasionally, it really is. The Penguins' cautious approach Crosby last season might have cost them another Stanley Cup, but it's a small price to pay. It's true that pro athletes are rewarded with fantasy money and a fantasy lifestyle for playing children's games, but all the money in the world can't buy more proper brain cells. With head trauma, you can never be too careful. If Toews or Watson need some extra time off, let them have it in peace. The risk involved with rushing back is simply too heavy.