This week, NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. put a new face on the concussion crisis that is hammering professional sports but has, so far, been largely limited to football. Earnhardt, one of the most recognizable racecar drivers in the world, announced that he would sit out at least two races due to concussion-related injuries, raising concerns from at least one retired driver that Earnhardt’s injury may actually be career threatening.
SB Nation’s Jeff Gluck wrote a great piece about the proliferation of concussions in stock car racing and the inner battles drivers can face when they suffer head trauma due to crashes. What stood out to me more than anything in Gluck’s piece, though, was this quote from Jeff Gordon, another of the sport’s biggest names:
“Honestly, I hate to say this, but I wouldn’t (admit it),” he said. “If I have a shot at the championship and there are two races to go and my head is hurting and I just came through a wreck…I’m not going to say anything. I’m sorry. That’s the competitor in me and many other guys.
“That’s to a fault. That’s not the way it should be, but it’s something most of us would do. I think that’s what gets a lot of us in trouble.”
Gordon’s response isn’t much different from NFL players who have said they would lie about and play through concussions, since injuries are a known risk in football. But Gordon’s answer is more problematic.
If an NFL player elects to return to the field after suffering a concussion, the risks aren’t small. Another hit suffered on top of a concussion that hasn’t been treated can even be deadly. But on the most simple level, the player’s decision, as bad as it may be, really only affects himself, and other players aren’t necessarily at an immediate risk of injury because he chooses to play.
In NASCAR, where the drivers are manipulating 3,400-pound cars inches apart from each other at nearly 200 miles per hour, that isn’t the case. A driver who isn’t sharp, whose reaction time is slowed by even a tenth of a second, is an immediate risk to every other driver on the track. That makes the risks of a driver getting back into the car while he or she is still suffering from brain trauma inherently more dangerous to the sport’s other participants than a football player who makes the same decision.
I don’t fault Gordon for his response any more than I fault Troy Polamalu for his. Professional athletics is a culture that demands winning, and from football to NASCAR, it’s a culture that rewards participants who “tough it out” and play through injuries. But that culture needs to change. The on-track death of Earnhardt Jr.’s iconic father sparked immediate investigations into how NASCAR could make its sport safer. The awareness being raised by Earnhardt Jr.’s concussions should lead to a similar level of introspection.