Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/1/2015 (2505 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
PHOENIX — The first thing that came to mind when news broke of Austin Collie kicking tires in the CFL was his concussion history and the question, "should he still be playing?"
The answer to that question is certainly not up to me. I was once moved to write the Winnipeg Blue Bombers could not, in good conscience, put Buck Pierce back on the field, but that was after knowing and watching the quarterback for a number of years. Pierce was willing to put himself in grave danger when it was clear he should no longer be on the football field. I can’t say the same about Collie. Not yet and let’s hope that’s never the case.
But Collie’s potential signing in the CFL does raise a number of questions that all professional leagues, including the CFL, must begin to answer.
The CFL has long been a league of last resort. A place for head cases and hardcases to get one last crack at professional football. Some wash out and some bounce back.
Hopefully the Collie story ends in joy and not despair.
Collie can no longer cut it in the NFL. He’s no different than the thousands of players who have come north before him to try and rebound in the CFL. He’s a pro athlete trying to hang on and maybe even mount a return to the NFL.
Collie has been concussed at least three times. The scenes on the field have been both violent and horrific. But, as so many have argued, that’s part of the game.
It most certainly is and to deny this or suggest it somehow magically be eliminated is to ignore the nature of football. The game is violent and people are going to get hurt. But when, and in particular while talking about the health of a person’s brain, is it time to say enough? And who should decide when a career should end?
"I’ll sign a waiver, all right?" said Collie when trying unsuccessfully to restart his NFL career back in the summer of 2013. "They’re not going to have to worry about me suing. I’ll hold myself to be accountable."
Collie’s sentiment is admirable but this isn’t an issue about one player. It’s about generations of players both past and future.
The data tells us one concussion can be enough to wreak deadly havoc with a person’s life. More and more we have to be asking, when has an athlete had enough?
The loudest voices on the subject come from media. And just as hockey players scoff at reporters trying to push fighting out of their sport, football people don’t like to be told how to handle their business.
"I think that’s dangerous," Scott Collie, Austin’s father and a former CFL player himself told USA Today. "It needs to be left up to the doctors, it needs to be left up to science, not outside observers and not the media."
Fair enough. But even the neurosurgeons don’t have the answers.
Dr. Michael Ellis is a neurosurgeon and medical director of the Pan Am Concussion Program as well as co-director of the Canada North Concussion Network.
Ellis did his fellowship at the University of Toronto and is a colleague of Dr. Charles Tator, who is recognized as a world leader in the field of concussion studies.
"It might sound very simple, but I often tell patients you only have one brain, and maintaining its health is essential to performing your duties as a person, parent, spouse, and employee, many roles that athletes will need to fulfill for many years regardless of how successful they are in sports," said Ellis via email Wednesday. "Retirement from sport decision-making is among the most challenging issues for athletes, parents, and physicians."
Ellis says every patient is different and while there is evidence of concussions causing depression, neurodegenerative disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, some experts are quick to say this is not the same as saying multiple concussions will invariably lead to these outcomes in all professional athletes exposed to these injuries.
"With these limitations in mind, there are no clear evidence-based guidelines to direct physicians as to how many concussions is too much and when an athlete should be advised to retire," said Ellis.
Randy Grimes, for example, suffered 20 documented concussions from high school to Baylor University to the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Grimes fell into a swirl of pain pills and alcohol that lasted almost 20 years before he was able to get clean.
Grimes says he doesn’t blames football for his addiction but says concussions and other injuries led him to pain pills. Then he lost control. But Grimes says you couldn’t tell him to quit football and you can’t tell Austin Collie when to stop.
"I don’t think you can do that. He’s is in charge of his own destiny and he has free will," said Grimes. "Even with my 20 concussions and the addiction, if you ask me if I would go back and do it all again, yeah, I would. I mean I would like to change a few of the consequences, but yeah, I’d go back and do it again. That’s how much I love the game, that’s how much Austin loves the game. Is it worth it? Maybe to him it is."
We’re quickly moving to a crossroads. A place where fans, media, owners, doctors, players, coaches and parents will have to come to some conclusions.
We’re going to have to challenge ourselves. To look in our own mirror. Maybe it’s as simple as Austin Collie says it is and we’ll have to ask players to sign waivers regardless of what the future holds.
Or maybe as a society, we’ll have to push decisions on athletes to prevent them from earning money and living out their dreams.
Hopefully, Austin Collie will enjoy many healthy seasons in the CFL and then a peaceful retirement. Right now, all we can do is hope because there’s no safety net in place.
Maybe that’s just sports. Or maybe it’s just crazy.