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Playing football with a brain injury. Are you kidding?

Playing football with a brain injury.  Are you kidding?

Having family in Cleveland, I watch the Browns play so I can at least sympathize with my long-suffering family who are all fans of the Browns. Maybe you caught the Brown’s Thursday night game on Dec. 8 against the playoff-bound Pittsburgh Steelers. This is and has been a huge rivalry game (at least for the Brown’s fans) and there was a lot of pride riding on it for the Browns. If you know the story, skip to the next paragraph…otherwise, let’s set-up the situation. Colt McCoy is the Brown’s young quarterback and he was having a good game. It was late in the 4th quarter, the Browns were behind 3-7, but had the ball and were marching down the field, with a chance to score and go ahead. On a 2nd and 5 on the Steeler’s 39 yard line, McCoy scrambles, flips the ball to one of his receivers and then takes a helmet-to-helmet hit. McCoy is literally stretched out on the field for a couple of minutes as the Brown’s medical staff tend to him. He is helped off the field. The backup quarterback (Seneca Wallace) comes out and moves the Browns down to the 5 yard line in two plays. Back out trots Colt McCoy, who two plays later, throws an interception to kill the Browns chance to win. So, what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that it was clear that McCoy had a concussion and was allowed to come back in and play. I know, that’s a bold statement. But you be the judge. Below are two pictures. The first is a shot of McCoy’s face at the line of scrimmage earlier in the game. Notice the focus, intensity, and clarity, not unlike what you see on every quarterback’s face before every play. But check out the following picture. This picture was taken after McCoy returned to the game after getting knocked out. Notice that the focus, intensity, and clarity are all gone. As one pundit noted, “the lights were on, but no one was home”. I saw this shot broadcast live and found myself screaming at the TV “take him out, he’s got a concussion!” (I’m not normally prone to verbal outbursts.) That’s why I wasn’t surprise when the following morning, the Browns announced that McCoy had suffered a concussion. When asked why he was allowed to return to the game, the Brown’s official statement was that McCoy showed no signs of a concussion after he was taken off the field. Are you kidding me?

There are so many angles to this issue (and the blogosphere is full of them). The NFL has made a huge deal of being concussion-conscious, even suggesting a five-step diagnostic tool to help the team’s medical staff determine whether a player has a concussion. Note that it is only a suggestion, not a requirement. The Browns have since elaborated and said that their medical team did not see the hit, did not know that McCoy took a helmet-to-helmet hit, and thus, did not administer any of the diagnostic tests. What? Didn’t they go out on the field where he was laying on his back? Didn’t the coaches see the hit? Can anyone with the Browns really say that nothing was done because they didn’t suspect a concussion? Really?

I’ve been in enough playing environments to know that in the heat of moment, actions and decisions are made that under the cold light of the next morning would never go that way. Concussions are such a big enough problem that the NFL (and NCAA and High Schools) have made proper care of athletes with even suspected concussions paramount (and 33 States currently have laws dealing with sports-related concussions). Brain injuries – that is what a concussion is after all – during football are a big deal. Because of this you would think that a team like the Browns, where it has been reported that there have been at least 13 concussions this season, would be really concerned and sensitive to the issue. Does it really take a concussion suffered by your starting quarterback, a poor decision to let him back in the game, and the subsequent attention and NFL investigation to get your attention?

There is no doubt that athletes want to compete and I have no doubt that concussed or not, McCoy told the coaches he could play. The failure was by the Browns team to make it important enough to ask McCoy a couple of questions to make sure he didn’t have a brain injury before sending him back into play. They wanted the win, so they trotted out a quarterback with a brain injury who subsequently lost the game for them and who hasn’t played since because of his concussion. Let’s hope that McCoy’s career is not over because of the Brown’s lack of care for the athletes that play for them.

This story has just started. There will be more coming out. In fact, we’ve got more on this topic (as well as the Ryan Braun doping case) in our weekly podcast this week with Sports Illustrated’s David Epstein. Join the conversation. It is an important one (unless of course you don’t care if athletes with brain injuries are competing).

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