Show must not go on

David Luiz being assisted by Arsenal’s senior physio, Jordan Reece. Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images.

Concussions in football are something common. They tend to come from collisions, typical in a contact sport. And the resolution in most of the cases is the same: a rudimentary check-up by the medical staff -in the cases of pro football- and a ‘thumb up’ signal to the manager. “Show must go on”, as Brian May once wrote.

But what happened this Sunday between Arsenal and Wolverhampton has gone much further. Not only because it ended with a person undergoing an emergency skull surgery; but because the player he collided with, kept playing for forty minutes.

We’ve seen that before. Just by hearing the noise, we can go back to the clash between Gary Cahill and Ryan Mason during a Chelsea - Hull City fixture in 2017.

Gary Cahill (left) looks on as Ryan Mason is stretched off the field. Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

A head-to-head impact following a crossing which ended up with Mason being taken to a hospital; and Cahill, not only playing the rest of the match, but even scoring -with a header- the second goal for Chelsea an hour later.

For Mason, that was his last match as a professional. One year after the emergency surgery of that midnight, he announced his retirement from football.

What we saw at the Emirates this Sunday was almost a replay of the action between Cahill and Mason. David Luiz and Raúl Jiménez went on an aerial duel, with the result of a collision between both heads. Not just nasty, which would be too superficial to describe the incident, but extremely dangerous. Three years have passed since, but nothing seems to have changed for the Premier League.

“It’s a shame my incident didn’t change the perception”, said Mason on Monday after what happened with David Luiz.

After Jiménez was rushed to a major trauma centre, the Brazilian defender kept playing until the half time. Almost an hour later, he finally stayed in the dressing room. There’s nothing that makes you believe that the FA Concussion Protocol wasn’t strictly followed. There was plenty of time to evaluate the situation of the player, while Jiménez was assisted.

At the end of the day, the decision of keeping or not the player in the field remains with the Head of the Medical Services. In the case of Arsenal, that’s Gary O’Driscoll, one of the main defenders of enforcing measures to assist players after a concussion.

That leads us to think that the protocol is still very soft. So soft that even a player who needed seven stitches in his forehead is not diagnosed as a case of concussion. It’s more than probably that David Luiz didn’t felt dizzy, had any problem with his balance or answered correctly to all the questions marked by the document. Still, wouldn’t have been better to let him rest after an impact of that kind? Or even taking him to a CT scan to reassure that there wasn’t any sign of damage in his skull?

To keep a player in the game after a collision like that can lead to dramatic consequences. The second-impact syndrome is the most dangerous given the fact that the footballer could experience a second concussion. Not letting the brain recover accordingly from the first trauma can have a massive impact on the damage sustained from a second knock.

Suffering a head impact is not like a twisted ankle. A head-to-head collision shouldn’t be treated as an average situation of the game. It needs assessment, a real one. Not just thirty seconds of talking with the player while searching for superficial injuries.

How football is dealing with concussions is so noticeable, that even an NFL player got shocked last year after seeing how the protocol worked during a Premier League match.

What J.J. Watt, Houston Texans player, saw on TV was David Luiz, by then still playing for Chelsea, staying flat out on the ground after receiving a close range impact from the ball.

It took him two minutes to make his comeback to the match. It‘s really difficult to think that the protocol -as we know it- was strictly applied in this case. From a matter of time, it’s impossible.

In the NFL, where Watt competes, the final decision on the concussion protocol is made by an independent neurological consultant, not the medical staff of the club.

Football is not listening to what science says. It’s a paradox that this happened on the same day Romain Grosjean survived to a potentially fatal crash in Bahrain Gran Prix. It was not a miracle, but decades of work of engineers and medical teams, what made possible that the current technology used in Formula One saved his life.

We all like to see sports as a show. As pure entertainment. That’s the basis of how we know it. But we can’t lose the perspective of what it is. And as it has advanced so much in knee injury treatments for example, it has to develop in identifying concussions as a potential major injury.

Watford striker Troy Deeney, who has played more than 500 matches as a professional in England, said this Monday that as a player, you know when something is not right. He added: “How many things are already being taken away from the players?”, when asked about the efficiency of the current concussion protocol.

It’s worrying that such an experienced player can make this kind of statements. Even more problematic is the fact that he’s probably just saying out loud the general perception from a football player point of view. The so common: “Trust me, I’m fine”.

Actually, you’re not. And that’s why this kind of injuries can’t be diagnosed by the player as if it was a simply: “I’m feeling a pain in this muscle”. The shock of suffering a concussion, mixed with the adrenaline of a match, will for sure make you believe that everything is under control. In the end, football players are trained to surpass the fear to any collision or wound.

Why am I writing all this? Because I was in that place. I was asked those routine questions. I’m glad that I failed that test, because I didn’t want to leave the match when I got the concussion. I knew something was wrong inside of me, but mostly because of that shocking phase -in my mind- I was feeling able to keep playing.

As a team member, you never want to let your teammates down. Fortunately, I was taken out of that match. I ended up with a surgery and a few days at the hospital.

Going through those sensations, that came during and after the injury, changed my perspective of the game. My teenager version admired that false analogy of a footballer playing with blood, overcoming pain, as a warrior. From then, when I see a situation of this type, I can’t help thinking that every action taken to protect the welfare of the person will always be crucial.

Football is changing, and so it should change the way they care about its people. It shouldn’t be hard to understand that a concussion, a potential damage to our brain, is above the show.

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Born and raised in La Habana, living in Madrid. I came here to write about football. Also about politics. Why not mixing them?

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Alek Sánchez

Alek Sánchez

Born and raised in La Habana, living in Madrid. I came here to write about football. Also about politics. Why not mixing them?

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