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When asked whether he would hide a concussion or admit it to the medical staff, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew admitted that he’d hide it and his reasoning, while understandable, is extremely worrisome.
“The bottom line is: You have to be able to put food on the table. No one’s going to sign or want a guy who can’t stay healthy. I know there will be a day when I’m going to have trouble walking. I realize that,” Jones-Drew said. “But this is what I signed up for. Injuries are part of the game. If you don’t want to get hit, then you shouldn’t be playing.”
You have to give Jones-Drew credit for his comments. I’ve wavered back and forth over the issue of concussions because decades ago, concussions were much less frequent. The reason? Players just played through them. The NHL is having a concussion epidemic now but fighting is much less than it was decades ago. Teams are now just much more careful with players and are extra cautious (and rightfully so) with concussions these days.
But what if players don’t admit they are concussed? Everyone who has ever played sports has injured himself a bit and told a coach that he was fine, even if he wasn’t. Players want to play. It’s that simple. But concussions lead to a whole new level of extremely serious problems. And yet, Jones-Drew is willing to accept those problems to play and earn a living. Here’s where I’m not sure I fully agree with Jones-Drew though. He’s the league’s leading rusher this year. He’s earned a good amount of money during his time in the league. No matter if he retires tomorrow, he’s going to be able to “put food on the table” as long as he doesn’t waste what he’s earned. He doesn’t need to risk brain damage to feed his family.
And it is that way with every NFL player. The minimum salary for an NFL player this year was $375,000. Every player can support and feed their families with that amount of money. If you waste it all and are forced to play extra years in the league when your health is at risk, you’ve brought that extra risk on yourself.
But for many players, the money isn’t the issue. The games are. Football players want to play football. You think Jones-Drew wants to sit on the sidelines? No. No one does. He wants to be breaking tackles and leading his team to victory. The mentality of an athlete is, “If I can play through it, I’m going to.” The consequences of doing so come second. This attitude isn’t going to change over night and more so, it is glorified in our society. It’s called toughness and every player wants to be described as tough. Players playing through pain are part of what makes sports great. We admire them. Washington Redskins fullback Mike Sellers echoed this:
You want to continue to play. You’re a competitor. You’re not going to tell on yourself. There have been times I’ve been dinged, and they’ve taken my helmet from me, and … I’d snatch my helmet back and get back on the field.
So how do you get players to admit they are concussed and sit out even when they want to play? There probably isn’t a way. If a player hides a concussion, there’s not much a team to do. How can they possibly know? As we see more and more players forced to sit on the sidelines for lengthy periods of time due to concussions, I predict we’re going to see more players taking Jones-Drew’s stance and hiding concussions. They want to play and they aren’t going to let a doctor tell them when they can get back on the field. They’ve seen how long some players are forced to sit out and aren’t going to risk missing months or years of their career. The consequences come second. It’ll be a return to the days when concussions were diagnosed infrequently but this time, it’s not because doctors were not wary of them. It’ll be because players are wary of doctors. And that’s a scary proposition for a league when most players die young already.
Jones-Drew says he know he’s “going to have trouble walking.” But he accepts that. But do we? As fans, do we accept the fact that our favorite players are willing to take years off their lives and risk serious brain damage to win football games and prove their toughness? It’s a question we haven’t answered and we don’t want to face. If the answer is no, it could mean the end of professional sports as we know it. If it is yes, then we are admitting to ourselves that our joy from watching these players compete is more valuable than their future health. It’s a lose-lose situation and that’s why we’re avoiding the question. But at some point, we’re going to have to face it and make a choice.