A little over a week ago, during Game Four of the NBA Western Conference Finals, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors fell hard, hitting his back, neck and head. He remained on the ground for a few minutes and was taken out of the game, head in hands. According to NBA policy, a player who has hit their head and is suspected of having a concussion is removed from the game for a neurological examination. Curry was removed from the game, but he was cleared to return to play only one hour later — missing the equivalent of a quarter of the game.
Only a day later, Klay Thompson, Curry’s teammate, was kneed in the head. He was taken out, but returned to the bench a few minutes later. He was only ruled out a second time after he began bleeding and required stitches. Despite being cleared of a concussion by the Warriors medical staff, after the game he was not feeling well and began to exhibit signs of a concussion. A few days later, he was diagnosed with a concussion. The incident was so confusing, even his agent, just a day before his diagnosis, was adamant that Thompson didn’t have a concussion.
Watching both Curry and Thompson fall hard on the court and then reappear shortly after, cleared of concussions, horrified me. How could they possibly know the extent of their head injuries in such a short period of time? However, as much as we would like to have a quick and easy diagnosis — and an even quicker recovery for any and every injury — both take time, and there’s no safe way to cut corners.
The weekend before Thanksgiving vacation this past year, I slipped and fell on black ice. My head hurt, but the pain went away after a half hour or so. I chalked it up to a bad fall and went along with the rest of my day. That afternoon and into the early evening I didn’t experience any of the normal signs of a concussion. It took me an entire day to realize I may have a concussion, and another three days to start experiencing a massive and constant headache Advil couldn’t alleviate that ultimately lasted for weeks. Additionally, according to my doctor, a brain scan wouldn’t have indicated anything, because the concussion was not severe enough to cause any visible brain damage.
Head injuries cannot be taken lightly. It could be hours or days before people begin to experience concussion-like symptoms, which further sheds light on the problems with the methods used to deal with sport-related head injuries. Hallway jogging tests and preliminary concussion tests that last less than one hour shouldn’t be the manner used to assess head injuries that could, later on, turn out to be worse than first expected.
Instead of clearing a player to go back into the game after a quick round of tests, there needs to be a change in the way injuries during the game are handled. Taking a player out for the rest of the game, whereupon a doctor not so closely affiliated to the team assesses the player over a few days, is an imperative step to change the system. What’s more, these organizations need to take the pressure off of the players to make the decision to go back into the game. After all, who wants to pull themselves out of a game? As it is now, the way we deal with these injuries not only hurts the athletes, but also the sport. No matter if the player ends up being fine, there’s always a chance that they are not, as was the case with Thompson. Thompson should never have been cleared to play (even though he never played).
Approximately 300,000 sport-related brain injuries — most of them concussions — occur every year in the United States. Among people ages 15 to 24, sports injuries are the second most common cause of traumatic brain injuries behind motor vehicle crashes. The problems we face when dealing with sports-related head injuries are also problems at the high school and collegiate levels — as we saw most recently when Michigan football quarterback, Shane Morris, was brought back into the game, despite having a concussion. Rules at the collegiate level that permanently take players out of the game after a head injury would have prevented his re-entry, as there are no such rules right now.
There’s no doubt that we’re already raising awareness about the seriousness of concussions, but incidents such as these indicate that we need to take swifter action. Whether it’s at the collegiate or professional level, it seems that the player’s health is not emphasized enough. Instead of focusing on when these injured athletes can return to play, the focus should be on their health. Continually questioning when they can get back in the game will only increase the pressure on everyone to get them back onto the court. It’s the job of the officials, the people in charge of the game and the coaches to put their foot down and send the message that the health of the athletes unequivocally comes first.