Blind eye turned on player safety

He is 6 feet 3 inches, 240 pounds – handsome, quick and strong. If there were a factory that produced perfect middle linebackers, he would be the blueprint.

At 25, he is in his prime as a professional football player – and his trophy cabinet is filling up quickly: At Boston College, he earned the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s best defensive player, the Butkus Award as the best linebacker, ACC Defensive Player of the Year, the Lombardi Award, the Jack Lambert Award, and on and on. With the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, he was chosen as the 2012 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and 2013 AP Defensive Player of the Year. He is a three-time Pro Bowler and in February played in his first Super Bowl.

His name is Luke Kuechly, and a week and a half ago he got his bell rung. That’s the old term people use when athletes at any level become disoriented after taking a shot to the head.

It was the Thursday night game – Panthers versus the New Orleans Saints – and Kuechly was his usual dominant self. With less than 5 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Kuechly was going in for a hit on Saints running back Tim Hightower when their helmets collided. As Kuechly was falling backward, he took a glancing shot to the back of the head from a teammate. The replay didn’t show an obvious injury. In fact, it looked like a run-of-the-mill play, although Kuechly did take the brunt of the contact on the jaw area of his facemask. What happened next was difficult to watch.

Luke Kuechly – 6 feet 3 inches, 240 pounds, handsome, quick and strong – was sobbing to the point of hyperventilation.

He looked scared, confused, heartbroken. As he was taken off the field in a cart, he tried to fight back tears as opposing players approached him to offer their support. He looked like a boy in a man’s body.

Kuechly didn’t merely get his bell rung; he suffered his second concussion in two years. His emotional response could have been the result of pseudobulbar affect, which is defined as episodes of involuntary crying or laughing following a traumatic brain injury. Fans who understand the link between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, could be forgiven for thinking the tears came from the pain of realization.

Last year, there were 271 concussions reported in the NFL. In study after study, Boston University researchers are eliminating any doubt regarding the link between football and CTE. Of the 92 former players who have donated their brains to be examined posthumously (currently the only way CTE can be diagnosed), 87 tested positive for the progressive degenerative brain disease.

Football is an American tradition, from Thanksgiving Day games to the Super Bowl, which is its own national holiday. People are passionate about their teams, and we understand the argument that professional football players are grown men who are paid well for the risks they take.

But the game is broken. If the NFL hopes to stay a mainstream sport rather than be a barbaric sideshow, it must do more than make token investments in brain research. It must become a tireless pioneer in the efforts to diagnose and treat those living with CTE; it must prove beyond all doubt that the well-being of its athletes, past and present, is paramount. Its future depends on it.

It was upsetting for fans to watch Luke Kuechly sobbing on Thursday night. We hope wealthy league executives and even wealthier team owners didn’t avert their eyes, as they have done for decades.

Concord Monitor