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The Mathis concussion is what the NFL fears, and probably can't stop

It doesn't matter who was wrong or if no one was, this situation is why the concussion crisis won't be going anyway anytime soon.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

There's a lot going on with the concussion that appeared Wednesday next to Rashean Mathis's name on the official Detroit Lions injury report. It's not something that tends to crop up after a bye week for an athlete in the NFL when it wasn't there before, but the matter was there for distribution to the press in black and white and digital pixels. Let's take a moment to breath it all in. Relax. Inhale.

  1. On Oct. 25 the Detroit Lions hosted the Minnesota Vikings. Rashean Mathis took a hit early on that looked brutal and came up holding his head (pictured below) and was treated on the sideline. At that time, it was determined he did not have signs of a concussion and did not go to the locker room to be evaluated. Later in the game, he took another hit. He was taken to see the team physician and the unaffiliated neurologist that all NFL teams are required to have on hand. Again he passed concussion protocols but did not return to the game. Given what we know of how that game went that's probably okay and totally understandable if someone didn't want to return. But it's important to note again that Rashean Mathis was cleared of concussion protocol and ruled to not have a concussion. Twice.

  2. After flying to London and practicing during the week before the Kansas City Chiefs game, Mathis began complaining about headaches on Thursday. However, the medical staff for the Detroit Lions did not believe it was related to the hit he sustained on Sunday.

  3. The headaches and symptoms apparently got worse. Rashean Mathis was marked as "probable" with "illness" next to his name on Friday. On Sunday, Mathis was listed as inactive.

  4. Upon the return from London, Rashean Mathis was seen by doctors again and ruled that he was suffering from a concussion. After a bye week and change, Mathis was finally listed with a concussion on Wednesday.

There's a clear breakdown as to what Mathis suffered against the Vikings. After all, he was cleared to return twice, even though he did not the second time. It was not a concussion. Team doctors and an unaffiliated neurologist ruled that Mathis did not suffer a concussion. A week and change later, it was a concussion. From their lips to God's ears, or something.

Depending on one's preconceptions about concussions and football (myriad!) the human thought goes to one corner or another. Barring for a moment the brain-dead assumption that concussions aren't that big of a deal and that Mathis needs to toughen up or whatever caveman logic is being used in that shallow half-thought, the leading assumptions on what went wrong:

  1. The doctors legitimately did not see the proper signs of a concussion at the time. The symptoms developed days after the blows taken by Mathis, which is perfectly possible given what little we really know about concussions still.

  2. Rashean Mathis downplayed his symptoms at the time of the hit in hopes he would return to the field. It wouldn't be the first time an athlete hid signs of injury in order to return to play. The code of machismo still reigns at the end of the day in football and other sports, but certainly here in football. 

  3. The doctors saw the symptoms but decided it was not enough to rule Mathis out and move on to the next step of the NFL concussion protocol; or, alternatively but related, the tests run by the doctors were not stringent enough to detect the concussion.

All three scenarios are trouble for the NFL. Working backwards, the third option is problematic in that the NFL and the team doctors do not have the protocols in place to determine that a concussion lower than severe is worth acting upon until symptoms force the issue. Although plenty of doubt is there for doctors employed by a team that wants to win on any given Sunday, it seems hard to swallow.

The second scenario presents a problem in the culture of the players themselves, fostered by the business of football. By now it's very well documented how many players would rather put their health to the side in order to chase victory as the dope fiend chases the dragon. Missing time is not only a Cardinal Sin in the code of the competitor but can impact future business decisions. Mathis, a veteran of 12 seasons and currently in his 13th, will certainly not command as much if he is seen as "damaged goods." Not everyone can keep cashing checks with a rattled brain like Wes Welker.

That particular case is hard to stop without a massive culture shift. Even with new knowledge, many players will continue to put their future health on the line, regardless that doing so shifts the public view of football further and further into bloodsport. They will say in interviews after they are retired that they would gladly do it again and again - although the voices of those that did succumb cannot be heard now.

But even that scenario pales against what could be the implications of the first scenario. If the doctors correctly applied the protocol, if the player was completely cooperative...then the protocols still cannot catch these concussions that do not evince themselves immediately. It may be as simple as the NFL protocol is not stringent enough, but if it is up to par, that's that. This may simply be the dark and nasty truth of it; a concussion cannot be caught and diagnosed within the span of a football game with modern science. That implication should scare anyone who wants to concern themselves with both the health of the players and the perception of the product the NFL is selling. All sides could be trying as hard as they can (even if you only believe this as a hypothetical) and even then that may not be enough.

The human brain is an undiscovered country. There can be more knowledge than ever and still there are gremlins and ghouls hiding in the dark. And in this sport that consistently smashes its participants against one another at speeds and forces that the human body was simply not designed to take, the calculus may just not work out no matter how many times one attempts to solve the problem. That shouldn't induce apathy about the issue, but concern, hellish concern. An unsolvable problem is still a problem, especially as the NFL fights upstream against darkening attitudes towards its sport.

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