As much as concussions have come under scrutiny the last few years, true enlightenment on the nature and ramifications of head injuries in sports is advancing at a glacial pace – obstructed by denial and fool’s gold, such as the NFL’s vague and inadequate concussion protocol and just the sheer mystery of it all.
Every so often, though, you see a semblance of forward progress, such as there was at the Chiefs’ Arrowhead training complex on Wednesday.
For one thing, by all surface indications, the Chiefs went beyond what they are obligated to do by the deficient standards of the protocol:
They ruled out quarterback Alex Smith for their Sunday game against Jacksonville despite the fact Smith has been deemed not to have suffered a concussion after twice leaving the game dazed last week at Indianapolis.
“I just think that it’s important that we just step back here an inch and just take a peek and see how he does this week,” coach Andy Reid said, later adding, “Whatever happened, happened. … Let’s just not let it happen again.”
Wow, so it turns out teams actually are allowed to do more than the minimum.
Now, obviously, that stance would have been more timely, welcome and meaningful on Sunday.
Instead, Reid reflexively reinserted Smith after he was medically cleared (after what Smith called buckling and being “woozy” before getting to his feet) and later exposed him to another blow with a read-option call.
The move also seems inconsistent, if not contradictory, with Reid’s statement that running back Spencer Ware has not been ruled out yet for Sunday despite the fact he indeed was diagnosed with a concussion.
But let’s not quibble with seeing at least a glimmer of common sense eclipsing the gladiatorial mindset and bottom-line mentality that blindly guides too much NFL groupthink.
More notably, this was all eloquently reinforced by Smith, to whom the topic might be more personal than most considering he essentially is here because he lost his job in San Francisco to Colin Kaepernick after suffering a concussion.
(For the record, Smith called that “a very different situation,” noting that he had suffered symptoms back then, including vision issues.)
While Smith no doubt on principle would prefer to play and perhaps had to be convinced not to, he made some substantial statements about straddling the line between being tough and being smart.
Nothing resonated more than this:
“You only get one brain,” he said, smiling, “as far as I know.”
Instead of feeling the need to flex his macho, the always stand-up, sensible Smith spoke with evident candor about the circumstances.
That included blaming himself to a degree for the first hit (“a late slide”), believing he slid early enough on the second to “afford myself” protection even as he acknowledged he can’t blame defenders for wanting to get their shots at quarterbacks.
More to the point, no, he doesn’t seem to have a concussion.
But, no, that doesn’t mean he was unscathed.
“Was it nothing?” he said. “We’re not saying that. I’m not.”
What he is saying, though, is that erring on the side of concern not only is acceptable but appropriate.
That’s because, as Smith put it, there’s no simple “blood test” that reveals a concussion. It’s not like you can just take someone’s temperature and, shazam, know what’s what in the brain.
“It’s just not that easy,” said Smith, adding that if he was back out this week and sustained another similar blow, “You’re asking different questions, probably, at that point.”
Many questions loom, of course, about the broader meaning of this, including how the Chiefs will treat similar game situations in the future – particularly if it were in the playoffs.
In the longer term, there still are no clear answers as to what further safety measures can viably be taken to alleviate the head trauma that is evident in epidemic numbers for former NFL players.
If you scoff at the phenomenon of findings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), look at the example of what became of the Chiefs players who played in the first Super Bowl on Jan. 15, 1967.
What is entertainment fodder on the field or TV or in fantasy leagues for us still is flesh and blood, after all, as you might have been reminded when seeing Smith glazed over on Sunday.
And all the more so when his wife, Elizabeth, took to Twitter.
Most of the focus was on her exchange with KSHB (Ch. 41) weatherman Gary Lezak for tweets extolling the virtues of backup Nick Foles, but the most telling post was this:
“My kids and I sit and watch Alex lay on a field,” she wrote, “not knowing what’s happening.”
Alex Smith laughed when the topic was broached Wednesday, but he said he understood her feelings and can’t fault her if emotions got to her some.
It’s how he tends to feel when he’s watching a good friend play, helpless because you have “zero impact” on what’s happening.
But this is the complicated balance you face to play in the NFL, Smith knows.
It’s hard to navigate if you love the game and your teammates and “everything about it,” as Smith puts it, and have the conscience to earn your paycheck.
But know that real life and the consequences of football await, too.
“Nobody wants to sacrifice that,” Smith said. “Every football player takes pride in being accountable, being tough, being able to play through things, but there’s a fine line there.”
A line that got some welcome clarity on Wednesday.
“We’re finding out more and more,” Smith said. “You can fix ankles, knees and things like that.
“But there’s no fixing brain injuries long-term.”
Obvious as it seems, that’s an important statement made by a man who knows there’s more to it than just sounding macho.