Detroit Lions’ Jahvid Best and the Concussion Debate

By Joyce Dunne

Though concussions are a hot topic for the NFL right now, the fundamental question surrounding them is long-standing: how to weigh player
safety against playing the game. Jahvid Best is a prime example of a player dealing with the issue. The Lions running back suffered a second concussion (the first occurred during the pre-season) in the sixth game of the 2011 season, and symptoms of head trauma kept him sidelined for the remainder of the season.

On the surface, the debate is straightforward. Football is a violent sport, one that players enter voluntarily, and any reasonable person should understand the trade-off.

But in the NFL, reason can be a tricky concept. The hyper-competitive nature inherent in NFL-caliber athletes can negate reasonable decision making, as can the hyper-lucrative 16 (soon to be 18)-game season for the owners. Fans will feel disappointed at a key player’s absence. It’s almost counterintuitive for a player in excellent physical condition to be sitting on the bench because of an injury no one can see or fully understand—no broken wrist, no torn ACL.

But we all are familiar by now with the ultimate, highly visible toll that head trauma took on former Chicago Bears DB Dave Duerson, who shot himself in February 2011 at age 50. Poignantly, he had asked that his brain be donated to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, whose findings cited traumatic brain injury as the cause of his dramatic mental decline prior to his suicide.

Best has stated his intention to return to football. Who can blame him? The Lions want him back but must plan as if he may not return. On the field, if concussion symptoms aren’t noticed or acknowledged by trainers and coaching staff, it’s the player who has to make the decision whether to report or hide the symptoms. In 2012, assuming Best is cleared to play, will he take himself out of a game in such a circumstance? And after seeing Best lose most of his season to head trauma, will other players bring attention to their concussions? A lot of complicated factors are at play. Surely some players will report a concussion, but the culture of the NFL hasn’t yet evolved to fully support their interests.

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