The League

Michael Oriard

Michael Oriard

An English professor at Oregon State University and the author of several books on football, including Brand NFL Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport and The End of Autumn Reflections on My Life in Football

Terrible uncertainties


Austin Collie's third concussion of the season raises the question of whether three is too many in any season.

I don't know if that's the case, and the answer should not come from anyone in the blogosphere, the press box, or a TV studio -- or on the sidelines or at NFL or NFLPA headquarters, for that matter -- but only from the medical experts who are finally being asked to weigh in on this issue. The best thing that the NFL has done over the past several months, more than levying fines for helmet-to-helmet hits and enforcing certain rules more strictly, has been finally deferring to real neurological experts rather than its own compromised spokesmen.

Head trauma is a medical issue, not a football issue. Reported concussions are up this season, though probably because of more reporting rather than more concussions. Returning too soon from injuries has always been a part of NFL culture -- and team doctors have sadly been complicit with coaches and the players themselves, who are more terrified of not playing -- but what we now know about the potential long-term effects of concussions raises the stakes so enormously that the NFL culture can no longer dictate decisions. Ironically, an NFL that has thrived on selling over-the-top emotions must now grapple with a highly emotional issue that easily spins out of control.

It seems that lots of football fans would love to see this issue go away -- all of the talking about it, that is, irrespective of the concussions themselves. The most chilling comments I've read on this topic over the past several months -- typically in response to an online columnist's thoughtful reflection -- have been versions of "players are getting paid millions, and they know the risks; let them play." I've seen football players described as "gladiators," as if that term were honorific, or at least neutral, rather than a damning sign of a decadent civilization. For the sake not just of NFL players but of all of us, I hope that attitude is limited to a tiny minority.

Against the NFL's discredited warrior culture, concern about Collie's third concussion might cause an opposite reaction: a leap to more regulation out of a need to assert a new culture of concern, whether genuine or calculated to placate critics.

We are in a period of profound uncertainty about a profoundly important problem. What medical experts today know about concussions, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, subconcusssive trauma, and related matters is unfortunately limited. I'm not so naïve as to believe that "experts" always know best, but they usually know a lot more than the rest of us. Doctors routinely make diagnoses and prescribe treatments based on informed guesses. Sometimes they're wrong, and with concussions the stakes are high. Not playing after a third concussion could mean losing millions of dollars in future contracts; playing too soon could mean long-term brain damage. But who else should we rely on while uncertainty about the long-term consequences of concussions slowly gives way to fuller understanding?

If I were Austin Collie -- or Austin Collie's father -- I wouldn't want the NFL dictating when he can play again. I would want the best neurologist I can find to tell me when it was likely safe for him to play, and I would want the league and his club to fully support that decision. As I understand it, that's where the current policy now stands.

One good thing has come out of Collie's third concussion. In years past, how many NFL players suffered multiple concussions and no one knew about them, not even the players themselves? If there is no clear answer about what to do about a third concussion, at least we are being forced to ask the question and ponder the potential consequences of the answers. Our best hope is for advances in the research on head trauma that will clarify football's risks. But that will take time, and until then the league and its millions of fans must not stop grappling with the terrible uncertainties we now face.

By Michael Oriard  |  December 21, 2010; 12:09 PM ET  | Category:  Concussions , NFL , NFL Rules , Roger Goodell Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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