The Dallas Cowboys have been absolutely crippled by their many injuries. This week's injury report for the team lists fifteen players, and that doesn't count Tony Romo, Orlando Scandrick, or Terrell McClain, all of whom have gone on injured reserve. But one of the injured is Sean Lee, who has now suffered his second concussion in just over a month. All the other injuries, while detrimental to the players involved, are not the same. Knees, ankles, and broken bones can be healed and, while they do lead to problems in later years, they generally do not threaten a person's life. But brain injuries like concussions can take years off a person's life, and can also rob a person of who they are.
Once, concussions were just considered part of life in the NFL. But as evidence has mounted of the long-term mental health issues and all too frequent and tragic suicides linked to the long-term damage to the brain, teams and especially players are having to take the risks more into consideration for the future. I was given an opportunity to get some expert advice on the effects of concussions from Dr. Erin Manning, Neurologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Dr. Manning treats sports related head trauma patients. She was kind enough to provide this information.
How may concussions affect Sean Lee?
Concussions can affect different people in different ways. People can have symptoms that vary from headaches and dizziness to problems with thinking, cognition, and concentration to problems with depression and anxiety. These symptoms can last different amounts of time from a few hours to days, weeks, or months. This time can vary from person to person and in different incidents in the same person, although overall symptoms tend to last longer if someone has had previous concussions or head injuries. He will be regularly re-evaluated through the concussion protocol to ensure that his symptoms are resolved before he moves on the next step.
Does he still have a future with the team due to his injury history?
His future with the team depends on how his symptoms improve. It can take people different amounts of time for the symptoms to improve after a concussion and often, but not always, the symptoms last longer after a repeat concussion. If his symptoms improve and he is cleared by his physicians, then it is possible that he could still play again this season. There is certainly more concern as he has had two concussions in a short period of time and I would expect that his physicians would be more cautious than if this was his first concussion. There is additional concern if he would have another head injury or concussion before his brain has fully healed from the initial injury as this can lead to a more severe injury.
Do his multiple concussions make continuing in the league a real danger to him?
This is a much harder question to answer because we do not have a lot of information regarding this. There is no set number of concussions or head injuries that we know will lead to long-term problems and dementia later in life. We suspect that more concussions and head injuries are bad but there is no number that we can give to people of how many is too many. There have been reports of long-term symptoms after a single concussion and there are people who have had multiple concussions and do not have problems later in their life attributable to the concussions. The decision to continue to play is an individual decision that has be made between the athlete and his or her physicians after weighing the risks and benefits. Every player has a different threshold of risk that they are willing to accept.
The dangers are real and sobering. Lee has proven that he is a very talented player when healthy. The evidence has continued this year that the defense plays much better when he is on the field. And he is extremely dedicated to doing everything he can to be out there helping his team, playing in the past with a cast on his hand (the celebrated "killer Q-tip") and coming back from a season on IR in 2014. But this is another beast to deal with entirely. It is not just his playing career that is now at risk. It is his entire life after he hangs up his cleats that is jeopardized.
As fans, we want to see him play. But sometimes, we need to remember that players are people, with family and plans for the future. It is just my opinion, but I would hope that Lee takes a lot of time to think over the course he needs to follow after his concussions, and that he seeks some good medical advice to weigh the dangers. As painful as it may be for all of us, it may be time for him to seriously consider retiring.
That does not mean that his life in football has to end, however. Lee is already something of a coach on the field. He could well move into coaching, the way Jason Garrett and Leon Lett have. It would seem logical that the Cowboys would welcome him to the staff as an assistant linebacker coach. It is also likely other teams would be interested in him. He has played in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, and the way he handles aligning the other players on the field shows that he has a great understanding of how to read offenses. One of the traits he exhibits regularly is to react to the offensive play almost before the ball is snapped, putting himself in position to make the play. That is something you would hope he could teach to some extent.
That may not be the course he would choose, but it is something that should be open to him. He is a player we would all miss, but hopefully we would all want him to do what is best for him.