Engel: NFL still not connecting the dots about concussions

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe
Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe has been cleared to play after concussion.
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Jen Floyd Engel

Jen Floyd Engel, selected as the top columnist in the 2012 Associated Press Sports Editors annual contest, started working at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997 and became a columnist in 2003 before joining Sports opinions? She's never short of them. And love her or hate her, she'll be just another one of the boys. Follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook.


Listening to Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe talk about it Wednesday, his concussion sounded so benign. What he described sounded symptomatic of taking a couple of Tylenol PM rather than a blow to the brain.

Not that his “just a little fatigued” answer really mattered.

All anybody heard, and I am culpable, too, was that Bowe had been cleared to play in Kansas City's wild-card playoff game Saturday against the Colts. It is a happy-happy story as long as you do not get too close or ask too many questions, like how Bowe ended up returning to the game in which he was concussed, or why this concussion took so long to diagnose.

“It was nothing big,” Bowe said. “I didn’t feel as bad as other people felt when they had a concussion. I just felt a little tired. There wasn't any dizziness or problems with vomit or none of that stuff.”

And on a typical NFL day, we blow right by this self-diagnosis by players.

Only Wednesday was not typical, because a big, fat Kansas City Star headline told of how Jovan Belcher's mother was suing the Chiefs on the grounds that he "unknowingly sacrificed his brain" while playing for Kansas City for four seasons and that the Chiefs had failed to protect him and that they had to have known, or at very least should have known, that he was messed up.

Belcher, of course, shot and killed his girlfriend a little more than a year ago. He then drove to the Chiefs complex, where he shot and killed himself and orphaned his 1-year-old daughter. A court is going to decide what role, if any, the Chiefs and CTEs and football played in this tragedy.

What I know for sure, a year after Belcher, is we do not learn.

We talk about the seriousness of brain injuries after crises — when a player kills himself, or his family, or when he files suits, or when he wakes up at 60 unable to remember how to get home. Then we pontificate and speculate, talk and care. And yet we fail to connect those big moments to little moments like with Bowe on Wednesday.

Because if we have learned nothing else with all of this talk about football and CTEs, we have to understand there is no such thing as a “nothing big” concussion.

I am not saying Bowe is not ready to play. I am sure he is. I am sure the proper protocols have been followed by Kansas City and tests have been passed by the wide receiver. Anything less, given what we know, is criminally negligent.

No, what bothered me about Wednesday was how indicative it is of why football still has a problem. All of this hand-wringing and concern about player health has not led to a lot of real-time dot-connecting, between the little, daily, nothing-big concussion decisions and the very big, eventual long-term impact of them. And we no longer can claim ignorance.

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Football, like porn and reality shows and tabloid magazines, have become our guilty pleasures. I heard this posited on NPR. Longtime sports journalist Frank Deford was talking about a professor at the University of Washington, Sarah Stroup, and a class she teaches about football and ancient gladiator games.

It is nothing we have not heard before by those who believe football is barbaric and cruel to those who play the game. There was something she said, though, something Deford said she said about how we “discount the brains we are knowingly damaging and then discarding. It is a hell, but one of our making.”

And that just seems like perfect background music for Bowe and Belcher and the things we are still unwilling to admit and talk about because we love the game they play.

Tagged: Chiefs, Dwayne Bowe, Jovan Belcher

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