Yesterday, at Eagles practice, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and safety Nate Allen converged on a thrown ball. They ran directly into one another, Asomugha's helmet colliding with Allen's chest. Asomugha went down, stayed down, for four minutes as teammates prayed. He struggled to his feet, walked gingerly to a motorized cart, and was taken off the field.
But don't worry, he's fine!
Despite sitting out today's practice, Asomugha has been cleared by the Eagles, who said through a spokesman that he had no concussion symptoms last night. This, naturally, gets trumpeted as "no concussion for Nnamdi Asomugha." All of which is to say, we still can't really wrap our heads around concussions.
Try not to think of a Concussion, capital-C, as a freighted Medical Thing that either happens or doesn't. Think of it simply as another word for "hard blow." Nnamdi Asomugha sustained a concussion when he ran head-first into Nate Allen. The hit concussed his brain, as it bounced off the inside of his skull. He will sustain thousands of concussions over the course of his career. Linemen concuss their helmets against each other on nearly every snap.
We already know it's not the big, crippling, "Jacked Up"-reel hits that cause dementia and ALS and all those nasty things that shorten and deteriorate football players' lives. Study after study shows it's the small, repeated, almost mundane hits that gradually break down the brain. There's no way to play football safely.
We know this, but it's a truth we're not prepared to face: "We don't want to know that people are ruining their lives for our entertainment," Mike Tunison wrote today. From the beginning, the problem was framed as a concussions crisis rather than a football crisis. This had the strange effect of both amplifying the issue and distorting it. Researchers could make the public sit up by pointing to something tangible; the NFL could compartmentalize concussions into a yes/no proposition, throwing protocols and rule changes at a problem that in fact ran much deeper. Talking about concussions was what got people to pay attention; talking about concussions was how the NFL dodged the bigger questions.
So: Asomugha doesn't have concussion symptoms, we say. Yesterday's hit didn't give him nausea, or dizziness, or temporary amnesia. It just put him face down for four minutes, unable to do much but flop his legs around. Nothing that'll impact his availability for Week 1! That's our coping mechanism—we think short term. Does staring at a bright light give a player a headache? If so, will he be better tomorrow? Will his scrambled brains keep him off the field Sunday? There's a very important difference between medical concussions and hard blows, between Concussions and concussions. The former are quantifiable and nominally treatable, and the NFL is trying to address them. The latter are coldly inevitable, because it's football.