If further evidence was needed that concussions are still a major issue for the CFL, Calgary Stampeders' Canadian offensive guard Dimitri Tsoumpas' retirement Wednesday can be added to the pile. Tsoumpas is at least the second player to retire this offseason in the wake of concussion problems, following legendary quarterback Anthony Calvillo, but unlike Calvillo, his retirement doesn't come after a long career. It's been an impressive one, as Tsoumpas was selected as a league all-star three times in his six seasons, and he'll be very tough for Calgary to replace. However, at just 28, he should have had plenty of good years left. Why did he decide to quit now? Well, according to the statement he released through the Stampeders, he's recovered from the concussion that forced him to miss most of the 2013 season, but the long and agonizing recovery process made him decide he didn't want to risk further injury:
“I love football and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Stampeders, so this is a very difficult decision for me to make,” said Tsoumpas. “I’ve fully recovered from the concussion that I suffered last season but because of the lengthy and difficult recovery period, I just feel that I needed to err on the side of caution and put an end to my playing career.
Tsoumpas will be remembered for much more than just his career-ending concussion, of course. After his impressive NCAA career at Weber State (Division I FCS), Calgary chose the Edmonton native with the second overall pick in the 2008 CFL draft, and he became one of the most dominant Canadian offensive linemen in the league, proving a particular force in run-blocking. He was a key part of the many remarkable rushing seasons posted by Joffrey Reynolds and Jon Cornish in the last few years. Tsoumpas played well enough to earn a look from the Miami Dolphins in 2010, and even though he didn't make it out of training camp with them, that stint's still notable considering how few Canadian players make it to the NFL. He also proved a valuable leader for the Stampeders, and he should continue to help the team even after his retirement from playing, as he's staying on with them as a strength and conditioning assistant.
However, it's that concussion that's going to hang over this story, and it's important for a couple of reasons. First off, it's notable that Tsoumpas said he'd fully recovered from the concussion he sustained, but elected to retire anyway to avoid risking his future health. That's far from typical, as most players elect to play on as long as they possibly can and most retirements around concussions so far have been thanks to them truly forcing someone out of the game, but Tsompas' case suggests that players may be starting to pay more attention to the growing number of stories about concussions' long-term effects.
That could cause problems for the CFL on several fronts. First off, players may be
less willing to play north of the border at all or stay in the league for too long. The CFL's low salaries relative to the NFL may play a factor there as well and could cause the CFL to be harder-hit on that front than the American league, with players deciding they're not willing to risk their brains for a relatively-low CFL paycheque. Second, paying extra attention to concussions may strengthen the players' hand in this year's upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations, as arguments and data about perilous work conditions could help them get higher salaries or better post-career benefits. Third, additional attention paid to the risks and long-term problems associated with concussions could increase the chances of a CFL concussion lawsuit similar to what we saw in the NFL; there are other factors that still make that relatively unlikely, but it can't be ruled out. Fourth, the more we learn about concussions and the more people think about them, the more likely it is that enrollment in minor football declines in favour of other sports perceived as safer. None of those potentially problematic areas have reached a crisis point yet, but stories like Tsoumpas' illustrate that players are thinking about concussions, and they show that the league's going to have to be very careful with how it handles head injuries and their surrounding issues going forward.