I have a good friend who used to play on my co-ed rec soccer league with me. A few years ago she caught a ball in the face at point blank range. She came off and sat and watched the rest of the game from the sidelines. She seemed fine. As they were leaving she seemed a little wobbly on her feet, and she said she was feeling dizzy. So her husband took her to the emergency room. They diagnosed a concussion. And the symptoms just got worse from there. Soon she couldn’t stand bright lights, and then loud noises. She couldn’t read or drive or follow conversations. She couldn’t work. She slept 20 hours a day. It was months before she was her old self again.
In 2008 or so my neighbor was hit by a car on his bicycle. He was going straight through an intersection on the green and someone didn’t see him and turned left right into him, throwing him from his bike. He hit his head square on the curb. Elsewhere he had a broken leg and a lot of road rash but was otherwise fine. Except for a concussion. He had trouble working for years. And now more than a decade later he still has trouble finding his wallet and his keys. Earlier this spring his wife of over 20 years left him. That last part is without a doubt at least tangentially related to his concussion. Being a partner to a person with a head injury is not easy.
On a less personal note, I have seen concussions either shorten or damage the careers of three Minnesota Twins: Corey Koskie, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. All of the them — save Koskie — still had great careers, but for Mauer and Morneau there will always be “what ifs” surrounding their legacies. I have also joined in on the chorus of people lambasting the NFL and the NHL for their decades of turning blind eyes to the fact that concussions were literally killing its players.
And so because of all that, I have rather strong opinions about concussions. On this blog, more than once, I have called for strictly enforced concussion protocols in cricket. My reason being that unless the game can prove to parents that it’s safe, than parents will stop letting their kids play. And the sport will slowly die even faster than it is already. (Hey, we’re all dying.)
But, for some reason, as I watched the protocols get enforced after Steve Smith was taken out by an Archer bouncer, I found myself questioning them. First of all, in this case, they were not very well enacted. How in the world was Smith allowed to stay out there after getting hit? And the concussion substitute — something I have called for in the past — just rubbed me the wrong way when I finally saw it in action. The game doesn’t allow for substitutes for any other injuries — just a couple weeks back England themselves had to play a man down after Anderson pulled up hurt — so why for concussions? It seems arbitrary and a little unfair. It’s even, if I dare, a violation of the spirit of cricket — a set of unenforced laws that help to keep the games as fair as possible for both sides. And the argument in favor of the concussion substitute — that players won’t try to hide concussion symptoms if they know a sub can be brought on — holds no water because he didn’t come off after getting hit.
And, so, again, cricket has a toothless law that solves nothing. But does that mean there should be no protocol at all? Hardly. There needs to be something. It is just very clear that this is not it. Unforunately, the ICC thinks it has now “done something” and so can wipe its hands of the matter and move on to money laundering or whatever they do in their spare time.
And that’s a shame. Because concussions can ruin careers. Can wreck marriages. Can lead to suicide. And this is where I waffle. Because in that sense they aren’t like other injuries. How many marriages have fallen apart because of torn ACLs? How many athletes have committed suicide because they pulled a calf muscle? So maybe we should allow the substitute, because concussions are different. Maybe the law when properly enforced will save careers and save lives. Maybe I should allow growing pains, for the umpires and the team doctors to get used to them. I don’t know. I don’t have the answer.
All I know is that it was really hard watching Smith bat after he got hit. It was obvious to everyone watching that he was not right. And the doctors and the umpires just let him languish out there, as his brain bled out in front of all us. Again, I don’t have the answer, I just know the answer is not that.
Cricket is a dangerous game. It always has been. I mean. Someone is literally throwing a ball at you. And the last thing I want is for that danger to be lessened. It should be dangerous, at least to some extent, otherwise it takes the teeth out of it. And I also want the game to be fair, as cricket’s fairness is its hallmark trait. And so maybe even just a slightly tinkered version of the law is all we need: you get hit in the head, you come off, no substitutes. That seems harsh, but I think that’s really the best way to keep the game moving forward. Because as mentioned, you need good concussion protocols. But what we have now just feels like a hackneyed PR move, instead of something that will actually A) keep the players safe and B) maintain the spirit of the game.
At the end of the day, brain injuries are evil. They ruin lives. And while I might not have a solution, I can say that the ICC’s is not there yet. But. It’s a step. And I can appreciate that.
Again, I waffle. And I hope Smith is okay. And that he is only allowed to play the next Test if fully approved by a neutral doctor. That I know for sure. You are young and a tremendous talent with a lot of great years at the crease ahead of you, Mr. Smith. Don’t let your ego derail your career.