All the furor over Jay Cutler spending the second half on the bench is proof positive that the battle for player safety is an uphill one, and won't be solved with posters and PSAs.
It began almost immediately after Cutler, who had been seen favoring his knee, and was completely ineffective, was benched for Todd Collins. Fans, who will call in sick tomorrow from work with a fever of 99.2, made Cutler the new Bartman. Media members who have never played football in their lives, solemnly proclaimed that you can't stay out of the game if you're still able to stand. And players, other professional football players, accused Cutler of "giving up" and not "gutting it out."
Let's be clear here: we're not debating Jay Cutler's toughness. What really matters is that his sitting out was considered almost universally a measure of his toughness, and that perceived lack of toughness is a bad thing.
At that moment, when Todd Collins lined up behind center, we didn't know a thing about Cutler's condition. Not a damn thing. (Parenthetically, sideline reporters are the most useless convention in sports. Normally they give us pointless fluff we don't need, and the one time the world wants to know what's going on on the sidelines, they were nowhere to be found.) Perhaps the lower leg was hanging on by a sinew. Perhaps the kneecap had shattered into bonedust. Perhaps he had an owie and needed a Band-Aid. We didn't know. All we knew is that his health, his safety, his comfort in the remaining 50 years of his life should have taken a backseat to him gritting it out and getting back on that field.
Toughness is a positive, right? We want our players to play through pain, for winning to be the only thing that matters. We do. And that's fine, even if we want that at their physical expense; football is human cockfighting. But no more pretending we give a toss about the combatants, when we — even other players, especially other players — heap criticism on them for eschewing a shot at glory for their own selfish needs like "wanting to be able to walk when they're 60."
This is why the concussion awareness the league is attempting to build is good, but insufficient. The culture of the game coming before the player is too entrenched: a warrior mentality that makes players who know they just got knocked dizzy try to hide it from their training staff. Yes, they know that going back in the game might have huge repercussions down the line. But they know that if they sit out, they will have to face their disapproving teammates in the locker room. Read about how Cutler's eyes welled with tears when told about his contemporaries' criticisms, and ask which means more to them in that moment.