How should Florida respond to Tim Tebow's concussive brain injury?

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Sept. 30 2009 1:46 PM

Get Your Head Out of the Game

How should Florida respond to Tim Tebow's concussive brain injury?

Tim Tebow. Click image to expand.
Tim Tebow after the sack that led to his concussion

On Saturday, University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow got crushed in the chest by a Kentucky defender. As he flew backward, a teammate's knee knocked into the back of his head and his arms went limp as he flopped to the ground. Tebow vomited on the sidelines several times after being carted off the field, and he was eventually brought to a local hospital. The diagnosis: a concussion.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor. You can email him at sportsnut@slate.com, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.

The University of Florida, which has the benefit of an $89 million athletic budget, is providing Tebow with state-of-the-art medical care befitting such a terrifying injury. The culture of football, however, isn't doing him any favors. While Florida head coach Urban Meyer has mostly deferred to the team's medical personnel, he did tell reporters that he thinks his quarterback will be ready to go against LSU on Oct. 10. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Tony Barnhart got the same story from his anonymous sources. "I spoke to several people at Florida close to the situation on Sunday and they are cautiously optimistic that Tebow will be able to play on Oct. 10," Barnhart wrote.

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By setting these expectations, Meyer and his colleagues perpetuate the idea that a concussion is like a sprained ligament or a ruptured tendon, injuries that doctors know how to treat and that have established recovery timelines. But compared with something like a torn ACL, we still don't know the best "cure" for a concussion, nor do we have proven guidelines for when athletes with brain injuries should return to the field. Michael Silver's recent Yahoo Sports profile of ex-NFL lineman Kyle Turley shows the dangers of talking about a knock in the head like it's just another football malady. Turley, who suffered one serious concussion during his career and took several more hits after which he couldn't "see straight for a whole series," regularly played through his head injuries. He now complains of vertigo, migraines, and dizziness.

Turley played through those "dings," he alleges, because he got bad medical advice from team doctors. The NFL has become less troglodytic since Turley's career began. Base-line cognitive testing (of memory, attention and reaction time) is now mandatory for all players, so doctors can more easily do a post-concussion analysis of the damage a player has sustained. There's even a whistle-blower hotline for players who feel pressured to get back in the game after a brain injury. This month, the NFL also released the results of a league-commissioned study showing that former players between the ages of 30 and 49 suffer memory disorders at 19 times the normal rate. Nevertheless, pro football isn't exactly embracing its own findings. Dr. Ira Casson, co-chair of the NFL's Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, told the Times, "What I take from this report is there's a need for further studies to see whether or not this finding is going to pan out."

Along with backward thinking, bravado surely contributes to the desire of players like Turley to play through their symptoms. According to an old football maxim, if your vision gets blurry, "just hit the guy in the middle." The coaches and players around Tebow are keeping alive the outdated idea that tough players fight through concussions. "I'm not a medical guy," Gators offensive coordinator Steve Addazio said when asked if Tebow would play against LSU, "but he's the toughest guy in college football without question, without a doubt in my mind." Tebow's high-school coach, Craig Howard, also praised the quarterback's hard-headedness, noting that in his prep career "he passed out more headaches and concussions than he got." (Tebow never had any reported concussions in high school.) And a teammate, linebacker Ryan Stamper, wondered what all the fuss is about. "Everyone gets concussions. Stuff like that happens," Stamper said Tuesday. "I guess because it happened to him everyone is blowing it up."

The only guy missing from this cast of characters is the trainer who tells Tebow to "tape an aspirin to it." Thankfully, the doctors at the University of Florida appear to be more enlightened than the rest of these bozos. Florida, like the NFL, gives each of its football players a base-line test of cognitive abilities in the offseason. Tebow will now be retested by Florida's medical team, and the results will help determine when he's ready to play again.

If we ditch football wisdom for medical reality, Tebow very likely had a severe concussion. According to the Miami Herald, Tebow appeared to lose consciousness for about two minutes after getting hit. Dr. Robert Cantu, who invented the grading scale for concussions, told the Herald that "[i]f you're unconscious for more than a minute, then that is a severe concussion and tends to be associated with a slow recovery.''

The good news for Tebow is that people like Cantu are now part of the conversation. For every ignorant quote in the popular press, there are cautionary words from people like Chris Nowinski, the ex-player who wrote Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis. "Considering how bright his future is, there's not a reason to risk his career for getting back for one game," Nowinski told the Palm Beach Post.

Should Tebow play on Oct. 10? Spencer Hall of the blog Every Day Should Be Saturday suggests that if Tebow wants to set a good example for high-school athletes, he should sit out the LSU game. The assumption here is that playing before you've "recovered" from a concussion will only make things worse. It's certainly a bad idea to play football while you still have symptoms of a brain injury. (Young people in particular are at risk of "second-impact syndrome.") But the truth is that we don't know how to ensure—or if there's a way to ensure—that a football player with a history of concussions won't have another one, or won't suffer dementia when he's 45.

If the University of Florida medical team—which has the newest and best diagnostic tools at its disposal—says Tebow is ready to play, then it's perfectly reasonable for him to play. Yet Hall is right to say that the football world has stumbled into a potential "teaching moment." Tebow spurned the pros and stuck around for his senior year partly because of the platform that college football provides for his Christian beliefs. The game's most charismatic player doesn't need to skip a game to have a huge impact on the debate over brain injuries. He simply needs to acknowledge publicly that on-field toughness is less important than keeping your brain intact.