Time to use our minds to find ways to protect athletes' brains

by | CBSSports.com Columnist

It was a modest little story in Friday's USA Today, and one that of course scared the hell out of a lot of people in sports.

Or none of them. Which is more representative of the way these things normally go. According to the story, the Army has discovered a blood test that reveals mild traumatic brain injury or concussion, via the presence of "unique proteins that spill into the blood stream from damaged brain cells."

If the test works, blood tests can be used to conclusively diagnose athletes who have had concussions. It can also convince parents that their kids won't be playing in any such sport and use a test to back up their argument.

DeSean Jackson's injury is a warning cry for the increasing amount of head injuries in football. (AP)  
DeSean Jackson's injury is a warning cry for the increasing amount of head injuries in football. (AP)  
Of course, the bugs in the test remain to be worked out, but in the meantime, we got a few more reminders that whoever is on lab duty probably needs to work fast.

 Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand is paralyzed from the neck down after a neck injury he incurred during the Scarlet Knights-Army game Saturday.

 Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson has a severe concussion after a frightful hit by Atlanta's Dunta Robinson in Sunday's game.

 T.J. Lavin took a horrific spill during a BMX competition Thursday and is currently in critical condition and in a medically induced coma.

Now the test itself has little to do with preventing injuries like those described above, although Jackson has had a concussion issue before.

But then you see Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay quarterback, who had a concussion last week but still managed to play Sunday against Miami, and you wonder if this was a great idea. You don't know because you're not a brain specialist, and coincidentally, neither am I, but players and teams have been known to fudge the severity of a well-rung bell since bells were first discovered.

In other words, we're for this little medical advancement as quickly as it can be advanced. Everybody is. I mean, who supports brain trauma?

But making the test reliable is one thing. The next thing is to give the force of law to restrictions upon an athlete whose tests show a pattern of brain trauma, or close as one can come.

Why? Well, it isn't because the laws we currently live under are infallible, or consistently pursued, or equally enforced. It's just that there isn't any other instrument available to make brain safety more than just a suggestion in sports.

So we suggest the following model, open to the usual detail work that makes many laws toothless: A positive test prevents an athlete from playing until all medical procedures to clear the test have been taken. The move is taken from the team's discretion, and even the athlete's.

Harsh? Yeah, maybe. But the arguments of individual freedom and inherent risk of danger seem slightly more hollow after the events of the past several days. Again, the injuries could not have been prevented by a positive test, not while sports have contact at high rates of speed.

But the post-traumatic aftermath can be, and with the advancements being made on brain work that seem to be coming faster and faster these days, turning those advancements into tools to minimize the damage seems half a step short. Making sure that the tools are used, and their results obeyed, is another.

Too many skulls got severely impacted this weekend, at least more than normal. So maybe it's the news that causes this sudden burst of sermonizing about the sanctity of the old brain box.

But let's be frank here. There are too many ways for concussed athletes to game the system, and too many ways for the system to look the other way when it suits it. I would like someone who doesn't have skin in the game to make the skin decisions, is all. And if this is an anti-libertarian stance, well, there was just too much damage this weekend to say, "Well, OK. Let the buyer beware. That's how Darwin would have wanted it."

Maybe everyone involved this weekend will come out clean as a whistle. Maybe the Packers and Rodgers were perfectly prudent in his care. Maybe this was just a bad week to notice a scientific advance on brain injury.

But it's a stance, and a chance, worth taking. Put another way, it's not a chance worth not taking.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.


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