Luke Kuechly episode shows just how little we still know about head trauma

The Panthers linebacker left the field in tears on Thursday – yet on Friday insisted he was fine. The reality is that concussion is mysterious, and we still have plenty to learn

Luke Kuechly departed in the fourth quarter of the Panthers’ game against the Saints on Thursday. Photograph: Jeremy Brevard/USA Today Sports

There are two images of Carolina Panthers star linebacker Luke Kuechly in the last couple of days that should make everyone uncomfortable. The first was of him, seated on a cart, weeping uncontrollably as he was taken off the field with a likely concussion on Thursday night. The second was Friday’s Instagram photo of him standing beside teammate Thomas Davis with a smile on his face making a thumbs-up gesture to the camera as if to say: “Nothing wrong here.”

The reality is that something is indeed wrong, given that Thursday’s concussion will be his second diagnosed concussion in barely more than a year. The last time he missed three weeks. He might miss games again this season. And for a team like the Panthers, who are struggling to get back into the playoff race after last year’s Super Bowl run, his loss can be devastating. You can’t easily replace the league’s leading tackler when he goes down midseason. The pressure on Carolina’s coaching staff to get him back will be extreme.

But here’s the problem with judging an injury like Kuechly’s in images. Neither Thursday’s video nor Friday’s Instagram photo say how seriously he is hurt. We are so much more aware of head trauma in football and how it leads to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE, which often leads to dementia and early onset Alzheimer’s. We’ve programmed ourselves to cringe at every big hit. And so when a player cries on the field after an apparent head injury while confused and concerned teammates gather around, it’s hard to not wonder if he might never play again. When a photo of him smiling and giving a thumbs up appears the next day it’s equally as easy to wonder if he will be ready for next weekend’s game.

What both images really say is how little we still know about head trauma and how it affect athletes.

A few years ago, not long after the first discoveries of CTE in football players, I attended a seminar on the subject in California. The host called the brain “the last frontier” in human science, and in many ways he remains right. At the time, football was only beginning to grasp the trouble ahead. The denial was thick. Later that day, Bennet Omalu, the Pittsburgh-area forensic pathologist who drew the first connections between football and CTE showed photos he took of former Steelers star Mike Webster’s brain. Webster, a Hall of Famer, who died of a heart attack in 2002 had suffered from amnesia and dementia for years, had the brain of an 80-year-old, he said.

The awareness is now so much greater in those first months when CTE was first a story in the NFL. The league has at last admitted that the repeated head contact in football contributes to CTE. Slowly the NFL is coming to deal with the danger even if they are being dragged there by new studies and intense public pressure. And yet for all the research and all the advances and all the new awareness there remains much unknown. Because of that, much confusion remains.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera was uncharacteristically testy on Friday afternoon when asked about Kuechly, saying the NFL’s defensive player of the year in 2013 was in the concussion protocol. There wasn’t much more he could add because there isn’t a lot anyone can say. Concussions can be mysterious things. Kuechly might not be seriously hurt this time. Or he might have effects that will keep him away for the rest of the season. Head injuries are nothing like ankle sprains. They aren’t easy to grasp.

But because Kuechly cried, and we aren’t used to football players weeping on their way off the field after an injury, the assumption is that something must really, really be wrong with Kuechly. This is what the reporters asking Rivera about his linebacker struggled with. It’s probably what Rivera struggled with, too. It’s what we all struggle with when trying to understand the time bomb under the players’ helmets. We want simple answers, and this is a topic for which there are not simple answers.

“Here’s a guy that’s a warrior and he loves the game,” Rivera told reporters on Friday. “It was an emotional time for his teammates because his teammates know how important he is. He’s a very important player for us, as are all of our players. I appreciate the outpouring, I really do. He means a lot to (the) organization and and the community as well. I get that part.”

Watching the Carolina players gathering around Kuechly in a worried way, and then expressing their own sorrow, at watching him roll away with tears streaming his cheeks, alarmed everyone who was watching. It made this injury seem like something monumental. Something significant. It’s hard for many who tuned in on Thursday to believe that Kuechly could be grinning for an Instagram less than 24 hours later. But there’s still so much to understand about head trauma, like why some players walk away fine from vicious collisions while others miss months for what appear to be much smaller collisions? This shows there is plenty to learn, with researchers now looking to the cumulative effect of thousands of seemingly innocuous blows as opposed to single dramatic blows.

Every brain is different. Every player is different. It’s too easy to judge exactly what happened to Luke Kuechly simply by looking at two images less than a day apart.


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