The Price of Head Injuries
Jahvid Best had everything teams seek in a running back. That’s why the Detroit Lions traded up in April 2010 to take the former Cal star with the 30th pick in the NFL draft.
“He has magic as a runner, things you can't coach,” coach Jim Schwartz told the team Web site at the time. “He’s an all-around player. You can line him up as a wide receiver, you can put him in the backfield, you can hand him the ball, you can throw him the ball—and we have a quarterback who can get him the ball.”
Now watch the following video and consider this question: Would any NFL team have selected Best so high if he were leaving college after this season? (Warning: The video is disturbing.)
Best is out of football now. The Lions released him this summer after two concussions sustained in their employ left doctors unwilling to clear Best to play. He hasn’t played in a game since October 2011. It’s difficult to believe he’ll ever play in another one.
That video comes from Best’s last game as a Cal player. Jonathan Monk, who uploaded it Nov. 7, 2009, wrote this in the video’s description: "Jahvid Best pays dearly for a touchdown against Oregon State. Turned out to be only a concussion and nothing more severe."
Only a concussion. Nothing more severe.
No one would write those words today. That isn’t a criticism of Monk. It is an illustration of how drastically our view of concussions has changed in only four years. In 2009, the world was only beginning to learn about the long-term dangers of traumatic brain injuries in football. In 2013, an injury such as the one Best suffered against Oregon State would be considered differently by the medical staff treating it and by NFL teams deciding whether to select Best in the draft.
It’s difficult to believe anyone would choose Best in the first round now. He probably still would have been drafted because his speed, power and ability to catch out of the backfield would have made the risk acceptable in the lower rounds. But it would have dramatically changed the amount of money an NFL team would have been willing to invest in Best. Knowing the circumstances surrounding the injury probably would make teams even more wary.
When Best sustained that concussion against Oregon State, he was playing with what was deemed a "mild concussion" sustained a week earlier against Arizona State. The injury wasn't immediately diagnosed but it did cause Best to miss practice time prior to the Oregon State game.
If an NFL team in 2014 knew a college player had sustained such a violent concussion while not fully recovered from a previous concussion, the team likely would scrub the player from its draft board. The reasons would be somewhat altruistic—no one wants to potentially contribute to long-term medical issues or early death—but mostly business. Teams wouldn’t want to sink money into a player who might quickly suffer another brain injury and leave them with no return on their investment.
I asked an agent last week if he worried about his clients’ concussion histories hurting their draft stock. He said it hadn’t been an issue in the past, but then he paused. He wondered if, going forward, concussion counts will become as important a part of the pre-draft process as an accounting of knee surgeries. Teams don’t want to waste money on a guy whose knee might give out in year two. Wouldn’t they feel the same about a guy whose head injuries ultimately might keep him from playing?
In light of lawsuits against the NFL and NCAA, colleges have instituted stricter concussion protocols in recent years. Players were taking baseline tests back in 2009, but the way that information is used has changed, and schools seem far more willing to err on the side of caution—even if it means a star player has to sit for an extended period of time. Because of this, information about players’ concussions has become very public. For example, Texas coach Mack Brown has kept the public informed as quarterback David Ash tries to recover from a concussion. Ash, who has a skill set that suggests he’ll be an NFL quarterback someday, likely will wind up answering as many questions about his brain during his pre-draft process as former South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore (tore both ACLs in college) had to answer about his knees before last year’s draft.
This is potentially good and bad. It’s good because the increased attention might save a player from sustaining a brain injury that could debilitate him later in life. It’s bad because college players might try to hide brain injuries and avoid treatment out of fear that they’ll hurt their draft stock. Players have always had to weigh the consequences of revealing any injury to coaches and doctors, but knowing what we know now about brain injuries, the stakes are higher here.
Playing through a nagging shoulder injury might be worth the extra dollars gained on the first NFL contract. The long-term cost of playing through a concussion could dwarf any financial gain.