One day years ago I was standing in front of Gerald Wallace’s locker shortly after a teammate affixed that “Crash” sign in his cubicle.
So I asked Wallace, a Charlotte Bobcats forward famous for wild falls, how many concussions he’d suffered. He laughed, then replied he stopped counting after his third NBA season.
I didn’t know how to react. He found that amusing and I found it appalling. Wallace is among the most thoughtful, interesting athletes I’ve covered, and he clearly had no regard for the long-term damage he might be doing to his brain.
So I was glad to hear Thursday that NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., another thoughtful and interesting athlete, took the opposite course. Not feeling quite right of late, Earnhardt sought out a neurologist to check whether he might have suffered a concussion.
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Turns out Earnhardt’s suspicions were correct. He will sit out Sunday’s Sprint Cup race in New Hampshire after a Thursday examination confirmed concussion-like symptoms. It’s unclear when Earnhardt will return to racing and Hendrick Motorsports has already arranged for former Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet in Indianapolis if Earnhardt isn’t ready.
This approach needs to become a trend. Athletes – whether the sport is football, basketball, soccer, racing or whatever – must start listening to their bodies more closely. That is hard. To get to the highest level of any sport requires sacrifice and a drive that isn’t within most of us.
There is a sense of obligation among these athletes that can skew judgment. Don’t miss a race, don’t miss a football game and sure don’t miss the Olympics, no matter how you might be feeling.
That has to stop. It’s incumbent on both the athletes and their bosses to understand the important line between tough and self-delusional when it comes to something as serious as a concussion.
That’s why I applaud what Earnhardt, 41, did this week and how Hendrick Motorsports endorsed his approach.
“I’m proud of Dale for stepping up,” team owner Rick Hendrick said in a statement Thursday evening. “The No. 1 priority is his health, so we’re going to give him all the time he needs.”
That’s how it should be, whether we’re talking about a superstar Sprint Cup driver or the 53rd player on an NFL roster. I’ve seen the culture change for the better in the NBA and other sports. There are now formal concussion protocols and baseline testing procedures. Athletes are being educated about the long-term effects of repeated concussions.
That registered with Earnhardt. After reading about soccer star Brandi Chastain’s decision to donate her brain to medical research, Earnhardt announced in April he will do the same. He has a history of concussions, and recent crashes at Michigan and Daytona gave him cause to get checked out by specialists.
Not the normal path
This is not the course NASCAR drivers traditionally take. Former driver Jeff Burton, now a television analyst for NBC Sports Net, says that has to change.
“We can talk about baseline tests and the ways that we can evaluate concussions, but unless the patient wants to be evaluated, all that stuff doesn’t work,” Burton said on NASCAR America.
“Dale Jr. being secure enough in his position to make a decision like this is big for the sport because, I promise you, it didn’t used to happen like that.”
It needs to happen like that. And it shouldn’t matter whether you’re Dale Jr. or the 15th man on the Charlotte Hornets’ roster. The risks are too great to ignore.