The NFL’s fairly recent push to prevent concussions and, more importantly, to ensure that players who have concussions are prevented from playing until healthy, has created an odd tension for many players.
Men who choose to play football and who choose to accept the risks inherent to the sport often don’t want to be prevented from assuming those risks, especially when absence from the place where those risks are taken could result in someone else taking their job. No current situation better exemplifies that than the case of Lions running back Jahvid Best, who has landed on injured reserve more than a month after suffering his latest concussion via helmet-ground contact that didn’t appear at first blush to be particularly serious.
When Best returns in 2012, assuming he’s able, any given snap could result in Best missing another extended stretch of the season. At some point, then, the Lions will look for someone who has no history of concussions to be their top tailback. Otherwise, the Lions constantly will risk putting themselves in the position of having to rely on an assortment of second-tier guys after Best has his next concussion, forced to hope that they can get a random big game from a guy like Kevin Smith.
In hindsight, even Matt Millen wouldn’t have traded back into the bottom of round one with the Vikings to get Best in 2010. When he’s available to play, he plays well. But coaches want players who’ll be available to play, and the practical consequence of the new sensitivity to concussions is that it makes players who are otherwise willing to play unavailable, and thus unattractive.
As a result, more running backs with a history of concussions at lower levels of the sport will slide in the draft, absent true gamebreaking skill that justifies taking the chance. And more running backs will be run out of the game prematurely, with coaches drawn to players who either have had no concussions or who have been able to hide them.
That’s where this is headed. Especially at running back, players will try harder and harder to hide concussions, because the diagnosis and treatment and unavailability that comes from having concussions will end careers prematurely.
Somewhere, there’s a proper balance between protecting men from themselves and allowing men to exercise their inalienable right to risk their health, safety, and well-being. We are a nation that was founded and fueled by risk-takers. At some point, men need to be permitted to pursue their chosen profession, even if the profession entails risk. Plenty of men (and women) make a lot less money at jobs that entail far more risk than playing tackle football.
That doesn’t mean we should quit applying skepticism when it appears that players and teams hide concussions. It’s a serious medical condition that needs to be properly evaluated and treated. At some point, however, after the player has regained basic functions and is capable of understanding and accepting the risks, he should have the ability to choose to take that risk.
Anything else would be, at a certain level, un-American.