Great news: at least seven NFL players suffered concussions on Sunday.
It was a glorious day for player health and welfare. Seven players, including three starting quarterbacks, endured cranial trauma and were forced to undergo neurological testing. They will be subjected to a battery of additional tests in the days to come, as doctors try to minimize the risk of long-term mental and psychological impairments. It was a grand, beautiful day.
How can seven concussions be great news? It’s a matter of perspective. Here is how the headline to this article would have looked a decade ago: “ “. And here is the lede: “ “. And here is the body of the story: “ “.
None of the seven confirmed concussions left a player immobilized on the field. All of the players limped or hobbled off; quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Alex Smith stayed in the game for a few plays. All of the injured players appeared capable of chit-chatting on the sideline and, if prompted, could confirm that they were not Aquaman and were no longer homecoming kings at Sleepy Valley High School.
Ten years ago, we would have thought we had just witnessed a zero-concussion Sunday. The stories about these severe, potentially life-altering injuries would have read something like this:
Jay Cutler got his bell rung late in the second quarter against the Texans but returned to the field after halftime. Cutler could not get the Bears going and took several more hits in the pocket as the Texans held on for a 13-6 win. “I have to do a better job,” Cutler said in a terse postgame interview.
Michael Vick was shaken up early in the second quarter against the Cowboys but returned to the game after missing a series. Vick fell apart in the second half, throwing an interception and fumbling in the end zone for a Cowboys touchdown. Andy Reid said Vick had “a stinger” that did not affect his performance.
Ten years ago, Cutler, Vick and Smith would be rewarded for their returns from blunt cranial injury with a week of talk-radio accusations and speculation. These are three quarterbacks that fans love to hate: the cocky, inconsistent Cutler; the turnover-prone, felonious Vick; and the under-talented corporate sprocket Smith. They would be branded softies, malingerers or momma’s boys if they stayed on the sideline, and criticized for their bleary-eyed, scrambled-synapse performances if they didn’t.
At least the quarterback injuries would be acknowledged. Bears defender Shea McClellin, Lions defender Cliff Avril, Raiders safety Matt Giordano and tight end Brandon Myers also suffered concussions on Sunday. Even in medieval times, quarterbacks merited a “What city is this?” consultation from a trainer after a blow to the head. Defenders and tight ends got smelling salts and a Gatorade. They don’t need to know what city they’re in.
Sunday was a great day because these seven players received a prompt diagnosis and will now get something in the same time zone as proper treatment. Sports radio hosts now cut off callers who claim that “Cutler is a wuss,” when in the past they might have awarded them bumper stickers. Fans now accept that a concussion needs to be thought of as an injury to be treated, not a rite of manhood to be endured.
The fan element is more important than you might think. Seven concussions means seven reminders to high school coaches that concussion protocols are meant to be taken seriously, reminders that if Cliff Avril cannot shrug off a blow to the head, then neither can a 15-year-old. Seven concussions in five geographic regions send a powerful message to hundreds of thousands of parents who volunteer as coaches at the Pop Warner level and set the tone for athletics in their local schools and communities. Little Johnny needs to stay down and then be honest with the trainer, no matter how long Grandpa rants about how much tougher kids were in his day. Seven concussions are seven chances for the NFL to demonstrate proper practices, to show gym teachers and proud fathers where toughness ends and neurology starts.
The NFL’s concussion protocols are far from perfect, of course. Cutler played until halftime with his injury, though the hit that caused it should have put the training staff on alert. But we have moved the response time for an injury like Cutler’s down to 15 minutes from a previous standard of about 30 years.
There is a tendency to overcompensate when criticizing the NFL on the concussion issue: to cynically brand teams and coaches as sadists who would gladly turn players into vegetables in exchange for a few first downs; to decree that one concussion per league per year is one too many; to scoff when players get midweek clearance to return to the field; to recast every change in league policy as an attempt to fend off lawsuits, not improve health and safety. There is still work to be done, but it is important to appreciate how far we have come. “Why didn’t the Bears react more swiftly?” is a much better question to ask than, “Why is Cutler such a crybaby?” That latter question, not long ago, would have been the one universally posed.
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In Philadelphia, home of Michael Vick and a bloodthirsty cult of sports toughness, hockey center Eric Lindros once suffered six confirmed concussions while playing for the Flyers. The first two were the result of obvious, violent collisions. Later ones came after minor blows. The fifth occurred during a minor-league skate-around when Lindros was still recovering from the fourth. The hits were becoming jostles.
We now know more about the progressive effects of concussions, how the early ones make a player susceptible to later ones. Back then, the explanation for Lindros’ condition was that he was a pampered weakling who didn’t want to play through pain. A Flyers doctor said -- after four concussions -- that Lindros was suffering lingering headaches because he chewed too much gum. Lindros and his family feuded publically with the Flyers, who were then run by Bob Clarke, Commander and Chief of the old Broad Street Bullies. The Flyers won the war of public opinion. Lindros lost the respect of a city, the chance for a Hall of Fame career, and perhaps much more in his efforts to prove his dedication.
This was 2000, not 1956. Lindros was a Vick or Cutler: highly paid, highly touted, divisive, a magnet for criticism. The “gum-chewing” prognosis came after the fourth and fifth concussions. Sunday’s concussion was Cutler’s fourth. The trainers may have waited too long, but none of them are going to rush Cutler back to the field or blame his symptoms on Juicy Fruit.
Think back on that attitude from 12 years ago. Imagine the fan who believed that mild concussions were “minor” injuries to be shaken off during a few shifts on the bench, a perception confirmed by an NHL doctor and the daily sports-talk dialogue. Well, that fan was us. He or she coached youth athletics. He or she was a parent who treated post-game headaches with chewable aspirins and a lecture about “commitment.”
No one is that dumb anymore. And we are getting smarter. A seven-concussion Sunday is not a sign of an injury epidemic, but of a diagnosis epidemic. Seven or more players have gotten hurt on every Sunday since the birth of football. This week, seven players got the opportunity to get well.
It was a great, wonderful day.