September 20, 2010
The Toronto Argonauts came up with a crucial 17-13 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers yesterday at the Rogers Centre (highlights here), but they did so without arguably their best player. Running back Cory Boyd (pictured above trying to evade Edmonton's Roderick Williams in August) entered the day as the league's leading rusher, but sat this one out thanks to lingering symptoms from a concussion he suffered last week.
For many years, the going football philosophy has been that you play through the pain of injuries. Head injuries in particular have frequently been shrugged off as "just getting your bell rung," and players have been encouraged to get back in the game as quickly as possible. That's been a prevalent stance across professional sports leagues, with NHL vice-president Colin Campbell denying the reality of many of the concussions suffered in his league just a few years back. Many of the people involved in professional sports find it hard to accept the severity of an injury that often leaves no physical mark. Broken legs or arms show you clearly can't play; concussions appear much less clear, even though they may have much more severe impacts on a person's health over the long term.
That's starting to change as more and more research is done on the severity and long-term effects of concussions. In 2007, a study of retired NFL players found those who suffered reported concussions during their career had triple the risk of depression compared to those who hadn't. Studies of the brains of dead football players showed many of them had severe brain damage and dementia. One of the critical cases involved former Steelers' legend Mike Webster, who went from winning Super Bowls to living homeless on the street to dying at the age of 50. Jeanne Marie Laskas wrote a fantastic GQ piece last year on Webster, Dr. Bennet Omalu, who coined the term chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) to describe what had happened to Webster's brain, and the NFL's attempts to shoot down Omalu's findings.
Shortly after that piece was published, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was called before the House Judiciary Committee to defend his league's concussion policies, and the league's stance on concussions was compared to tobacco companies' early stances on the health risks of smoking by Rep. Linda Sanchez. A few months later, the NFLadmitted for the first time that concussions can have long-term consequences and agreed to fund further research into their effects. They also changed some rules to try and reduce the number of concussions suffered during play; some, like Montreal slotback Ben Cahoon, have argued the CFL should follow suit. Head injuries certainly aren't only a problem in four-down football: ask Dave Dickenson, Buck Pierce or Jerry Campbell, who Vicki Hall wrote a great profile of during the lead-up to last year's Grey Cup.
Scientists know there are severe long-term problems with head injuries, but more revelations keep coming out about just how widespread they may be. It's particularly scary that CTE keeps showing up even in those football players who die young, such as Chris Henry and Owen Thomas. Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece last year on concussions in football revealed that many concussions occur during even the most routine collisions between linemen in practice, and that the cumulative effects of those smaller hits (many of which still carry the force of a car accident) may be even more frightening than the results of a highlight-reel collision that knocks a player out. Gladwell perhaps went a bit far in comparing football to dogfighting, but his piece and the terrifying information that keeps coming out about concussions suggest that we need to take a close look at how these injuries are handled.
Fortunately, media and ex-players are catching on. Former NFL player (and current National Football Post analyst) Matt Bowen wrote an excellent piece for the Chicago Tribune this week on his daily struggles with the effects of the concussions he suffered during his playing career, and current Bears' linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer spoke to the Tribune's Brad Biggs about his struggles with concussions that have him contemplating retirement. It's not just football players speaking out, either; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue decided to retire this week thanks to a concussion he suffered earlier this year, and former NHL player Alyn McCauley spoke to me last year about his concussion issues and his desire to prevent others from enduring the same problems. It's great that athletes are willing to speak out about this vital topic, and the media have a crucial responsibility to ensure that their stories are told. By and large, media members are realizing that concussions are a critical story; even NBC's Bob Costas editorialized on the seriousness of the issue during halftime of last night's Sunday Night Football clash between the Giants and Colts. The word is getting out there, and that's a positive step.
Perhaps the most difficult people to convince may be current football players and coaches, though. Players have often been focused on playing through the pain to prove their toughness and loyalty to their teammates, and coaches have encouraged that. Last year, when Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed a game against Baltimore thanks to a concussion, teammates Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes criticized him for doing so. The NFL is trying to improve awareness of the dangers among current players and coaches with initiatives like locker-room posters, but the message clearly still isn't reaching everyone.
Although concussions appear to be on the rise this year, there are still huge issues with how they're reported and treated. Just last week, the Philadelphia Eagles put both Stewart Bradley and Kevin Kolb back into a game after they suffered concussions. As Bruce Arthur wrote this weekend, Kolb's injury was first diagnosed as a jaw problem, which is frankly ridiculous in a league that purports to be taking concussions seriously.
It's not just an NFL problem, either. In the NCAA, Houston quarterback Case Keenum was curiously listed as "day-to-day" after suffering a concussion in last week's game, and was even medically cleared to play this week; he did play, but suffered a knee injury and will be gone for the season. Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist stayed in last week's game despite not being able to see out of one eye after a hit and being unable to understand his offensive coordinator in a phone conversation, but insisted he didn't have a concussion. Crist played again in this weekend's loss to Michigan State. At the Canadian Interuniversity Sport level, I wrote a piece in 2007 that included the information that several Queen's University players in different sports refused to admit to their coaches that they might have suffered a concussion. Many teams still seem to think it's more important to hurry players back to try to win now than focus on their long-term health, many players seem to be okay with that, and that's disappointing on both fronts.
The Argonauts should be applauded for taking a different tack. If ever there was a team who needed a specific player for a particular game, they'd be near the top of the list. Boyd was the league's leading rusher heading into yesterday's game and was basically providing all of Toronto's offence. He's been the key to their success this year, and I listed him as one of the league's five best players at the momentmy interview with Shutdown Corner's Doug Farrar a couple of weeks back. It certainly hasn't been the passing game that's led Toronto's turnaround; The Globe and Mail's Stephen Brunt described quarterback Cleo Lemon's play yesterday as "by and large, dreadful," and that description could apply to most of his season. The Argos have been winning with defence, special teams and a one-dimensional offence led by Boyd, so facing a crucial game that had significant playoff implications without him seemed like a tough task. Yet, there was never any indication this week that they were even considering trying to hurry Boyd back for this one. Instead, they got it done with the usual formula of defence and special teams, and Canadian running backs Bryan Crawford, Jeff Johnson and Andre Durie filled in aptly in Boyd's absence.
Unfortunately, this sort of caution around head injuries is far closer to the exception than the rule in the NFL, the CFL and the university ranks. It was only last year that Winnipeg quarterback Michael Bishop was knocked out and returned to the field on the next series with nary a critical comment from the TSN commentators and studio analysts. That's why independent evaluation of concussions is so critical; players want to get back out there as soon as possible and teams, by and large, want the same thing. For concussions to be treated properly, the decision on when a player can return should be made by a doctor unaffiliated with the team. Otherwise, we're likely to see far more situations like Bradley's, Bishop's and Keenum's than those like Boyd's, where the team and the player both got it right.