NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

Is Aaron Rodgers Hiding a Concussion?
The stadium scene.
Jan. 25 2011 11:37 AM

NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

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uarterback Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers.
Aaron Rodgers took a hit to the helmet against the Bears. Is he now hiding a concussion?

Nate, you wrote: "Rarely have I seen a guy on the field or on the sideline who looked like he was truly in pain. When you're hurt, it feels like more of a malfunction—the machine is broken." That feeling—one less of being injured than of needing repairs—goes a long way to explaining the numb-it-up culture of pro football, wherein joints and limbs get reattached with athletic tape during TV timeouts.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

On Monday, Saints fullback Heath Evans declared on ESPN that his teammate Drew Brees played for six weeks with a torn MCL, the same injury that felled Jay Cutler. This is how we want our athletic heroes: stoic, uncomplaining, their acts of bravery revealed by others after the season is done. As befitting a man who appears on the National League of Junior Cotillions' list of best-mannered people, Brees refrained from comparing himself to his comrade-in-ligaments: "Nobody knows the extent of Jay Cutler's injury except for him and the Bears training staff, so nobody can comment on it fairly." Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, while slightly more self-aggrandizing, expressed the same sentiment. "Me personally, I'd have to have been taken off in a cart," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "That doesn't mean I'd be right. If they knew [Cutler] couldn't throw the ball good, he wasn't helping anybody. ... I'll never say what he should have done." The back half of Rivers' statement was the part missing from Sunday afternoon's Twitter chest-thumping: Playing hurt can be a selfish act, and bravery is often the cousin of stupidity. Consider Brett Favre's entire career.

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Stefan, the Ben McGrath New Yorker article you talked about on Monday zooms out to address what football can and can't do about head injuries. Concussions are not just a football problem. McGrath writes about reading reports of head injuries in rugby, lacrosse, and baseball on Dustin Fink's Concussion Blog. "Hockey may now have a concussion crisis on its hands," McGrath continues, with Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby out for three weeks (and now this Sunday's All-Star Game) after taking a big hit in early January.

Like the NFL, the NHL has recently emphasized the need to protect players from reckless in-game activity. But the league's Rule 48, which outlines an "illegal check to the head," does not outlaw head shots that are deemed accidental (like the shoulder to the skull that felled Crosby on New Year's Day) or hits from the front.

Stefan, this reminds me of the rulebook pedantry that governs pro-football flag-throwing—the fact that a running back who gets bashed in the head does not get the same protections as a "defenseless receiver." While some NHL players and coaches are calling for the league to penalize and/or suspend players for perpetrating any variety of head shot, USA Today relates a warning from Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke: "[L]eagues that have banned all head shots have seen so much reduction in hitting 'that it looks like a beer league.' " If you didn't think football and hockey are at a similar fulcrum point, then that ought to clinch it: A hockey exec, like football players James Harrison and Ryan Clark among many others, has invoked the language of existential crisis. ("The game is ruined!")

To circle back to Jay Cutler, the NHL and NFL both face a cultural problem that's as daunting as the games' innate violence. Sidney Crosby played one game after getting knocked silly in the Winter Classic; his injury was then termed a "mild concussion," and the team announced that he would miss about a week of action. "This is exactly what the NHL did NOT need," Concussion Blog's Dustin Fink wrote on Jan. 7, "a superstar pushing through and hiding his injury." In a post on Monday, Fink extended his point, arguing that Crosby "handled this concussion like most 'bravado' men do, as if it was nothing. It is time for Crosby to take some responsibility for his actions."

Along with the announcement of Crosby's absence from the All-Star Game, another news item caught my attention on Monday. According to the Minnesota Star-Tribune, Twins first baseman Justin Morneau will not attend the team's fan fest this coming weekend "so he can continue his workouts near his offseason home." Morneau got kneed in the head in the beginning of July as he slid into second base. At the time, you will not be surprised to learn, this was termed a "mild concussion"; his manager, Ron Gardenhire, said that "it knocked him a little loopy." Morneau hasn't played since.

I'm amazed this hasn't gotten more attention—the 2006 American League MVP, a guy who had a 1.055 OPS in 81 games last season, has been laid up for more than six months with a head injury. (If all goes well in the next few days, Morneau will be able to resume swinging a bat.) One thing I didn't realize before yesterday is that Morneau, a Canadian, "sustained head injuries during his days as a youth hockey goaltender and high school basketball player." He also missed 13 games in 2005 after getting cracked in the head by a pitched ball.

Major League Baseball has responded to Morneau's concussion, as well as those sustained by Jason Bay, David Wright, and others, by proposing a seven-day disabled list exclusively for players with head injuries. Yet the case of Justin Morneau doesn't reveal a sport on the verge of calamity—this was a guy susceptible to concussions who suffered a pair of head injuries in slightly out-of-the-ordinary moments. Yes, baseball has its dangers, but it is not at its core a dangerous game.

For me, Morneau's long absence points up how crazy it is that football players return to the field so quickly after "getting dinged." I wonder if the difference results from the fact that it's impossible to track a fastball if you're seeing double. In football, perhaps, it's easier to con your way on to the field by pretending that you're fully healthy. (By the way, that article about MLB's disabled list proposal mentions that "[n]one of the leagues has explicit rules for exactly how long a player must sit out with a concussion, which is why Morneau was sidelined from July until the playoffs, while Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, for example, missed only one game after getting hurt this season." Jay Cutler, cross-sport exemplar of bravery! And stupidity.)

I've taken the long way around to talking about the Super Bowl. How about this: Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger have both been concussed multiple times in their careers, with each player missing one start due to a head injury in the last two seasons.

Can you imagine the hullaballoo if he gets "dinged" again this coming weekend, yet the Pack still advances to the Super Bowl? For two weeks, the sports media would talk about nothing but brain scans and early-onset dementia; this is perhaps not the NFL's dream scenario.

Well, as Stefan noted in his last entry, Rodgers took a shot to the head from the Bears' Julius Peppers on Sunday. Shawn Doherty of Wisconsin's Capital Times wonders, rightly, if there's a "conspiracy of silence over [a] possible Rodgers concussion." The incentives here are perverse, as the NFL forbids concussed players from re-entering a game. The solution: Everyone on the field, on the sideline, and even in the announcing booth (Fox's Joe Buck and Troy Aikman said nothing) has to wish away the fact that Rodgers looked woozy.

So, it turns out I was exactly wrong: When Aaron Rodgers got dinged, the sports media talked about everything but brain scans and early-onset dementia.

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