Dec 1, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; A sign placed by fans is seen outside the Kansas City Chiefs practice facility the evening that Chiefs player Jovan Belcher (not pictured) committed a murder and suicide. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Jovan Belcher Had No History of Concussions

It’s been a week and a half since the tragic lives of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and that of the girlfriend he murdered, Kasandra Perkins, ended. We now know that he had been drinking the night before the murder-suicide, and we also now know that Belcher had no unusual or long history of concussions.

There’s another side to it, however. We do know that the ancient axiom of “not losing a starting role due to injury” in professional football is nothing more than pie in the sky; just ask Drew Bledsoe, for instance, about his own job status when Tom Brady took the helm after the week of game postponements following the 9/11 attacks.

Bledsoe took a vicious hit from New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, had “severe internal bleeding” (according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter) as a result, and could have died from the injury had he not immediately been taken to the hospital. There’s certainly no doubt that Bledsoe’s injury was of the more intense variety, but he never did get his job back.

I recall during the pregame Super Bowl marathon, the pundits discussed this situation at length and Bill Belichick, in his usual fashion, waited until the very last moment possible to announce that Tom Brady would indeed be starting the game even though Bledsoe had fully recovered by then.

The reason I’m digging this factoid up is that it underscores the fact that, despite platitudes, the reality is that if you lose your starting job in the NFL for ANY reason, you better pray your replacement doesn’t outperform you or you’ll be out of a job.

I suspect the same is true at the collegiate level and even below. Winning isn’t everything – it’s the ONLY thing according to Vince Lombardi’s most famous quote. And he has many such quotes.

Logically then, players at all levels inherently must know the real truth and have been reluctant to admit to having a concussion if they can get away with it. That, in turn, leads inevitably to more players having brain damage caused by concussions or “concussion-like” impacts to the head that go completely un-diagnosed. Why is that?

Well, Boston University just produced the results of a new study earlier this month, according to Time Magazine, that took a look at 33 cases of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The findings were frightening. 15 of the cases had not been publicized, and all 33 cases were of deceased ex-NFL players.

CTE can ONLY be determined via autopsy, which makes the condition all the more insidious. There are no tests, no scans, no “nothing” that can detect it even with our fancy 21st-century medicine.

The idea of taking away the kickoff entirely has been put out there in recent days, and those particular plays account for a disproportionate number of bad injuries. If you think of it, it makes complete sense as to why – you’ve got 250-plus pound athletes colliding on an all-out sprint. That’s a lot of energy imparted to each person involved in the contact.

As for Jovan Belcher, the circumstantial evidence is damning. However, given the Donald Rumsfeld-ish “known unknowns” – the possibility of CTE being involved – we should all reserve judgement of the situation before all the facts are in.

It will be at least another week, possibly more, before autopsy results will be known.

Those results, whatever they are, will undoubtedly kick off yet another debate. If he had CTE, it will be yet another blow to the game of football and talk of getting rid of “the kickoff” entirely will start in earnest. If he had no CTE, the debate should pivot to the pressures of being an NFL player and any warning signs people may have either missed or overlooked.

In the last 8 months, 4 current or former NFL players have killed themselves. Either way, the debate is only beginning.

For more information on concussions, symptoms, and causes, there’s a great article and graphic here – Concussed.

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