Concussions are a hot button issue in athletics, and in football in particular. Gone are the days when you could laugh and gawk at monstrous hits with no regard for victim’s well-being. Gone are the days of “he just got his bell rung” and “suck it up and get back out there”. There’s a reason ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown replaced the segment “You Got Jacked Up” with “C’mon Man”.
Now, the treatment of concussions is standardized as much as possible. That’s to take personnel decisions for individuals with possible brain injuries out of a coach’s hands. And, for the most part, the public has gained a better understanding of the ramifications of a concussion. But, we don’t seem fully prepared to sacrifice wins and losses just yet.
Let’s examine the case of Charles Walker. Oklahoma’s star defensive end hasn’t played since October 1st against TCU. This Saturday, he’s expected to miss his third game.
For a broken bone, a torn ligament or even a pulled muscle, you would find little opposition to a player’s return timetable. A concussion however, finds more debate. Missing the remainder of the game after a debilitating hit is understandable. Missing the next week’s game is acceptable. But, missing a second full game results in your toughness and dedication to the team being questioned.
That is possibly why Charles Walker felt it necessary to address on Twitter the rumors that have begun circulating about him since missing Oklahoma’s game against Kansas State.
“I don’t know where these rumors started about me not showing up to games or about me quitting. Do y’all really think Coach Stoops would allow anything like that on his team … I don’t need to acknowledge anything that’s being said and don’t care at all but I’ll never leave my guys behind if I wasn’t able to …. period …. but this season isn’t about me it’s about our team … on that note BOOMER SOONER BEAT TEXAS TECH”
Obviously, he is acknowledging what’s being said about him, and he clearly cares at least enough to address the rumors.
How did his fans go from cheering for him to succeed on the field, to accusing him of quitting on his team the moment he leaves it? To figure that out, we need to go back a few weeks.
The first public acknowledgement of Walker’s injury came from head coach Bob Stoops in a media session ahead of the Sooners game against Texas.
“We’ll also be without Charles Walker I guess he said he got a concussion sometime in the game the other night. So he’ll be out,” Stoops said.
That could be innocent and unfortunate phrasing, but because Stoops didn’t simply say “Charles Walker got a concussion and is out”, it left the door open for speculation about the severity and legitimacy of his injury.
“I’m not part of the process cause I don’t ever want a young man feeling pressured by me, you know, to do something that isn’t going to be in his best interest,” Stoops said. “So I am not a part of it and it’s really doctors and parents. Then it’s my job to get my arm around them if they are finished and let them know that they’re still a part of this team.”
That’s the right sentiment, and by all accounts Stoops has been on point in dealing with a rash of concussions dealt to his players this season. That makes the perceived treatment of Walker that much stranger.
The reason for his prolonged absence from football shouldn’t matter. Neither should his injury history, NFL Draft projection, or the Sooners’ next opponent. All that should matter is his own decision to play or not to play.
Should Walker be made to feel that his scholarship could be threatened, because he doesn’t feel healthy enough to compete? Wouldn’t doing so completely invalidate any pretense that those that govern college athletics have any regard for the safety of the athletes?
Walker’s situation isn’t the first of its kind in college athletics, and it won’t be the last. Fans of every school in the Big 12, and throughout the country, will eventually encounter a player wearing their team’s colors taking a similar stand. And there’s likely to be more and more who carefully take stock of their health before rushing back to the field. Remember to get some perspective before blasting them, because no one wants them back on the field more than they want to be.
As frustrating as it is to not have one of your best players available for one of the season’s biggest games, at the heart of your frustration is your willingness to risk a young man’s long term health for a single trivial victory.
So, for Charles Walker and the countless athletes who find themselves in a similar situation, don’t question their toughness, or their heart, or their dedication. Praise them for their determination and their long-term thinking. They’ll be cheering on the rest of the team right along with you.