Brett Poirier · Monday February 18, 2013
If an NFL linebacker or an NHL enforcer came forward and admitted to having a handful of concussions, including two last year, and sought advice from you, what would you say to him?
Would you tell him that maybe it is time to hang up the helmet — call it a career? Would you tell him that as much as you love to watch him compete, there is more to life than sports? If you did want him to continue to compete, would you hold it against him if he suddenly retired?
Now, let’s move over to NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed two races last year after suffering back-to-back concussions, and admitted he had multiple in his career before that. He’s more popular than indoor plumbing, and might single-handedly be holding the sport together.
What if he gets in a testing/practice/qualifying/race crash tomorrow, suffers another concussion, and decides it’s in his best interest not to race anymore?
Why aren’t we talking about this possibility?
The focus heading into the Great American Race has been on everything but those head injuries: Danica, her Ricky romance, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth… we can go on and on. Over in Hendrick Motorsports-land, it’s how the Generation-6 car better suits Earnhardt, Jr., about how he is launching an online podcast network, whether winning a title this year is a strong possibility.
There have even been stories about how even Earnhardt Jr. isn’t immune to NASCAR’s sponsorship woes, as the No. 88 currently lacks backing for 13 races — more than one-third of the schedule. It can be blamed on the economy; Hendrick also claims he’s turned down companies who want all 36 races on the car (the National Guard is signed for roughly half the schedule). But with Earnhardt Jr’s popularity, he should be able to find funding in any situation. The man could find sponsorship after the apocalypse.
Maybe Junior’s potential backers in the boardroom are the only ones thinking clearly. Why dole out ridiculous sums of money if you’re not certain the star driver is going to be in the car? Fortune 500 companies know the risks they take; clearly, questions are being asked behind the scenes, if not special language being demanded for any deal should health issues crop up one more time.
Publicly, it seems like only a select few understand the levity of Earnhardt’s situation. If one thing was clear from that concussion press conference last season, the events that took place certainly gave him a new perspective. It didn’t just serve as time off, but also as a wake-up call.
“It changed the way I feel about it to where if I know I’ve suffered another concussion or if I have symptoms after an accident, I’m definitely going to be a lot more responsible about it,” Earnhardt Jr. said before practicing for the fall race at Martinsville. “I can understand peoples’ opinions that they would try to push through it or they would ignore it to stay in the car because I did the same thing.”
He added, “Some concussions are really bad, and I don’t care how tough you think you are. When your mind’s not working the way it’s supposed to, it scares the (crap) out of you. You’re not going to think about race cars, about trophies, about your job. You’re going to think about what do I have to do to get my brain working the way it was before? That’s going to jump right to the top of the priority list. I definitely take it more seriously now after everything I’ve learned.”
Research in recent years has given powerful evidence of the long-term effects of these blows to the head. Many professional athletes form a degenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which causes symptoms of memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression later in life.
In the NFL and NHL, players retiring because of a series of concussions is commonplace. Football and hockey are inherently violent sports. In hockey, men trained in skating body-check one another into walls, and if that doesn’t settle it, they have a good old-fashioned fistfight. In football, running backs lower their shoulders and their heads before speeding, head-on into packs of giants and receivers racing across the middle of the field — only to be flattened by linebackers and safeties. It’s probably safer to just run into traffic. Just ask the 2,000-plus ex-NFL players feeling the effects of those hits today, all of whom are now suing the league.
In hockey and football, concussions have become part of the culture. We have come to accept it. The same can’t be said of auto racing. Drivers wear expensive helmets, HANS devices and full-body seatbelts, and they race in cars that are supposedly state-of-the-art when it comes to safety. And we always think that what we have is safe enough — until we find out the hard way that it’s not.
Concussions in NASCAR didn’t get much press before the end of 2012, but the sport does have an ugly history with head injuries. Dale Earnhardt, Neil Bonnett, Kenny Irwin, Ernie Irvan, Tony Roper, Adam Petty, Jerry Nadeau, Steve Park, and John Nemechek are some of the names that will pop up if you do a search. Those are just some of the ones we know about from the last 20 years — and most we only know because of how severe their injuries were. All except Irvan, Nadeau, and Park resulted in death.
Mandatory neurological baseline testing in 2014 is a start, something NASCAR was quick to jump on as Speedweeks began. But it’s ironic that the sports governing body that’s seen more fatal head injuries than any other waited the longest to test for them. It would also be ironic, along with tragic if the sport that has taken a bevy of important safety measures since Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001 loses the man’s son because they just couldn’t keep him safe enough.
Hopefully, Earnhardt Jr. races the full season, wins a host of races, and maybe even competes for the championship in 2013. Hopefully, his health isn’t the reason he ultimately decides to stop competing, whenever that may be. But that is wishful thinking for someone who has already had a host of concussions. It’s fair to say his future is uncertain, and most of us are turning a blind eye to the issue. It’s time to start talking about it.
So, if Earnhardt Jr. — a man who lost his father to a head injury — suffered another concussion and came to you for advice on his racing future, what would you say?
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