A few years ago, we would have called Paul George gritty. Today, in a sports world aware of the dangers of concussions, there are only questions about why George returned to Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals after taking a knee to the head and laying motionless on the court.
It happened with more than six minutes left in the fourth quarter of a crucial tilt between George’s Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat — the Pacers, already up one game to none, were trying to put Miami on the ropes by taking the second game too. George annoyed Heat guard Dwyane Wade enough to cause a loose ball, and both dove to the floor. As they did, Wade’s knee caught George in the back of the head, and George collapsed.
Minutes later, George was back on the court, an obvious shell of his normal self. It was no surprise, then, when he told the media afterward that he “blacked out,” that he played the rest of the game through blurry vision.
The Pacers said after the game that George passed concussion tests on the bench, but that wouldn’t satisfy the NBA’s concussion policy, which states that any player suspected of having a concussion should undergo tests “in a quiet, distraction-free environment conducive to conducting a neurological evaluation.” An NBA bench during the fourth quarter of a playoff game wouldn’t seem to qualify.
All NBA teams should be familiar with that policy, but the Pacers should be especially so. Pacers point guard George Hill suffered a concussion during Game 4 of a playoff series last year, and the organization faced questions about whether it had followed the league’s mandated return-to-play standards when Hill returned to the court for Game 6 just a few days later. On top of that, the Pacers apparently put center Roy Hibbert through a concussion exam after he took an elbow from LeBron James last night. There’s no reason that this team shouldn’t know how to handle a player with a concussion, especially one as obviously injured as George was last night.
But this is the unique problem concussions pose. They don’t make it impossible to play like a blown knee or a busted shoulder, and easy as they are to spot they’re just as easy to sweep away with an excuse like “pain in the back of his head.” The only guy who really knows what’s going on has no idea what’s going on at all. And the incentive to find out what’s wrong is too easily outweighed by the incentive to pretend it’s all good, the culture of treating and managing these injuries the way they ought to be too easily overshadowed by the culture of shaking it off and playing through the fuzz.
So while I hope the Pacers put George through a rigorous concussion test, it wouldn’t necessarily be surprising if they didn’t. Give him the real test and you increase the odds finding a concussion, and finding a concussion means you put one of your biggest stars on the bench during a playoff series against your biggest rival. The incentive for the NBA is similar, especially when it threatens the drama of a marquee playoff series that features a rivalry the league has hyped since Indiana and Miami met in this same round a year ago. And George? George is an athlete. A gamer. A guy who doesn’t want to watch, a player who like everyone else is schooled in the mindset that tells players to get up and get on with it. There will be time to heal later.
Not applying the full test and letting George return is problematic for him, obviously, just as not taking these injuries seriously is problematic for Alexi Casilla and Robert Woods and the thousands of football players who sued the NFL because they say it didn’t properly address the dangers of concussions. But not testing for, identifying, and treating these injuries on the big stage also creates problems all the way down the line. Researchers last year found that one of the biggest problems keeping youth sports from fully addressing concussions is a “culture of resistance” among young athletes that teaches them that “getting your bell rung” is nothing to worry about. It isn’t hard to see where that culture begins.
So it isn’t just Paul George, the Pacers, and the NBA who have to make sure they set aside the short-term incentive to put wins over brains. It’s young athletes who need them to do the same, and who need their coaches and leagues to do the same themselves. Because every time we pretend that victory, glory, and maybe even your spot on the roster are on the line but your brain isn’t, we’re telling every athlete from the NBA to youth sports to treat concussions the same way, consequences be damned.