There's been a lot of debate over the last few years about how to properly handle head injuries in football. FIFA and UEFA are now enforcing a three-minute break in play to allow for an initial evaluation of any player believed to be suffering from a concussion after a blow to the head. Such a measure is only a step, but at least it's a step in the right direction.
It's only a step, though, and how team doctors, coaches, and even the players go from that three minute evaluation stoppage still leaves much to be desired. Example A: Christoph Kramer took a vicious shot to the head early in the World Cup Final, stayed on the pitch, and fifteen minutes later asked the referee where he was and collapsed shortly after. Later, he told the media that he remembered nothing about being on the pitch.
On Thursday, during Europa League play, another disturbing incident occured. Early in Napoli's match against BSC Young Boys, Miguel Britos took an accidental, but very hard, kick to the face when he dove for a ball that a Young Boys attacker was trying to strike in Napoli's box. Britos went limp when he got hit and didn't appear to move for over a minute, well after trainers arrived and started checking on him. When he did finally sit up, it was clear by his behavior that he was in significant pain and didn't appear to be in full command of his faculties.
Despite this, and even though he kept shielding his eyes and leaning over when he was taken to the side for further checks, Britos was left on the pitch. The Uruguayan was showing a number of red flags for concussion symptoms, and yet for some reason he was left in the match, despite the massive risk to the player's health that decision created. Even from a competitive standpoint, though, the decision was insane; Britos was moving sluggishly, reacting slowly, and generally appeared to be three or four steps behind what was going on around him, including Kalidou Koulibaly physically pushing him towards his proper position on one occasion.
Finally, over twenty minutes after his initial injury, Britos simply stopped and fell over. It was later reported that he had suffered a "significant" dizzy spell and couldn't continue on. Frankly, the decision to take him off came over twenty minutes too late.
Concussions aren't something you can run off. They aren't something you can just bite down, show some grinta, and play through. Britos staying on the pitch wasn't brave, it was a very, very stupid decision for everyone involved. Concussions are dangerous, and incredibly so. They are, in their simplest form, trauma to the brain. You know, that thing that runs your entire body and makes you who you are. They also create an opportunity to trigger significant brain damage, especially if further trauma is incurred before the injury has had time to heal.
Concussions can and have ruined careers across a wide variety of sports, including in football. More than that, though, they can ruin lives. Handling them so blithely is as reckless as it is stupid, Teams and players need to be more aware of what's happening, and cognizant of the risks involved with these injuries.
If Britos had taken another shot to the head while he was on the pitch and things had gone wrong, he could have died. That's not a dramatization. Not an exaggeration. That is one of the myriad risks you take playing through a concussion. There's "taking one for the team," and then there's that. That's a risk no player should take. Even taking away the risk of death, such joys as permanent debilitating brain injuries are still left to consider.
There is no such thing as handling head injuries too conservatively. The effects are too severe, too massive, too life-altering for there to be. FIFA and UEFA have taken steps in the right direction in the matter, but cases like Kramer and Britos prove things still need changing. This is something we need to find a way to fix before someone dies on the pitch.