Just last month, a handful of NFL players aged 30 or younger suddenly retired from the NFL. The last—and most surprising—of the batch was 24-year-old rising star Chris Borland, who made especially large headlines by declaring that, for him, football was no longer "worth the risk."
Considering what we now know about the short- and long-term effects of head trauma in football, you could argue it was only a matter of time before a player would make such a bold decision.
It's no secret that in recent years a strong link has been established between football-related head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that can result in confusion, memory loss, aggression, depression and dementia.
An increased knowledge of the risks associated with playing pro football has undoubtedly resulted in a heightened degree of fear, which at least partially explains why new preventative measures are being adopted on an annual basis as the league, the players association and associated committees attempt to limit brain damage on the football field.
So Borland is gone after only one season, oft-concussed veteran wide receiver Wes Welker can't find work, former college star Pat White's recent and abrupt retirement from the CFL was linked to his history with head injuries, and yet on the other end of the spectrum sits Austin Collie.
Collie, who became a poster child for concussions when he was knocked unconscious twice during the second half of the 2010 season with the Indianapolis Colts, suffered three concussions in a 22-month period and has seemingly become toxic in the eyes of most NFL general managers.
And yet Collie refuses to give up.
The 29-year-old spent four years as a member of the Colts before they let him walk as a free agent in 2013, not long after he'd suffered that third concussion. In the two years since, Collie has caught just six passes in seven NFL games. He spent four weeks on the San Francisco 49ers roster in the summer of 2013, he was used sparingly as a member of the New England Patriots that season, and the only NFL sniff he's received since was a workout last spring with the Washington Redskins, who opted not to sign him.
Now, instead of taking a hint and walking away, Collie is attempting to keep his football dream alive by crossing the 49th parallel to Canada, where he'll try to redeem himself as a member of the BC Lions.
Why is Collie, who according to Spotrac has made about $3 million playing football, continuing to push his luck? Is this pursuit worth it? Or is it absurd? More broadly, is it our right to deem a grown man's very personal decisions to be righteous or ridiculous?
Knowledge is power
When retired players sued the NFL earlier this decade, their key claim was the league withheld information regarding the potential short- and long-term effects of football-related head injuries and failed to warn players of the dangers associated with concussions.
The reality is that's no longer a factor, because most if not all of the information we have about concussions in sports is now public knowledge. Cautionary tales—Jovan Belcher, Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, Terry Long, Mike Webster, et al—are now prevalent.
In other words, Austin Collie isn't being duped.
With full access available to information regarding the potential risks, it becomes hard to criticize grown men for deciding to take those risks. That's why former WWE wrestler and concussion expert Chris Nowinski has no problem with Collie continuing to work at extending his pro football career.
"The goal," Nowinski, who authored a book entitled Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis, told Bleacher Report, "has always been to let adults become informed of the risks, then make the best decision for themselves and their families."
And as University of Rochester Medical Center brain injury expert Dr. Jeff Bazarian points out, the reality is that there's still a lot that remains unknown to both laymen and industry experts. A lot of murkiness still exists when trying to determine which players are at a higher risk than others, so we really don't know that Collie's three well-documented concussions place him in any more peril than those who have suffered a higher quantity of less noteworthy hits.
"When you spread out all the data on a table, we can see that there's something bad that happens, but we don't know how to get from football to that something bad," Bazarian told Bleacher Report. "There's enough information now to generate anxiety about this, but not enough to provide clarity. So people like me and others are working as hard as we can to provide that clarity.
"Sure, we can ask people to make decisions, but they're probably going to have as much difficulty as we as providers in trying to make those recommendations to our patients."
Optics taking over?
Rarely can films like Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues give us opportunities to connect the dots regarding broad societal dynamics, but the popular comedic sequel may have accidentally done exactly that during a scene in which Ron Burgundy is injured.
In the scene, Will Ferrell's character is knocked unconscious after slipping and falling during a ridiculous ice-dancing performance in front of a crowd at a party. As onlookers rush to help Burgundy, an affluent party guest screams at Burgundy: "Do not die in front of us!"
The latter four words of her plea, of course, convert the exclamation from one of altruism to one that is primarily if not wholly selfish.
We prefer not to witness horrific incidents. Football is entertaining and the NFL is in the entertainment business. Incidents in which players are injured severely aren't good for business. So it's fair to wonder, as Collie has, if teams are essentially blackballing him because they don't want to host his next nationally televised knockout.
"The bottom line is, if those [concussions] didn't happen when they did, right at the height of the concussion discussion, I'd probably still be playing," Collie told The Vancouver Sun earlier this year. "Everybody can comment on it. Everybody has their opinion. But I'm not them. Football is a childhood dream for me. It's a way to provide for my family and play a game I love. To not be playing, because of a label, is hard. I've been labelled."
It hardly seems fair, but Nowinski notes "athletes, after having known concussions, often don't receive the same interest from teams."
Nowinski first noticed it with his college roommate, Isaiah Kacyvenski, whom he claims had nearly a quarter of the league interested in him when he was released by the Seattle Seahawks early in 2006. But then, after the linebacker out of Harvard suffered two diagnosed concussions with the St. Louis Rams later that season, there was minimal interest on the free-agent market. Kacyvenski ultimately signed a one-year deal with the Oakland Raiders, but he suffered a knee injury prior to the season, was placed on injured reserve and never played another game in the NFL.
"Austin has been cleared to play football," Collie's father, Scott, told the Sun. "We, as a family, are in agreement with that. Unfortunately, his concussions—the two that he sustained one year—were significant. They were shown on television, and that kind of sticks out. He played two or three seasons without a concussion, but it's still hard to beat that stigma."
I wouldn't call it a concussion stigma, because this isn't about concussions so much as it's about the optics related to big hits and stretchers and everything within that orbit. It's a "do not die in front of us" stigma.
"We all know today the NFL players are hiding the majority of concussions—we know that as fact," said Nowinski. "It's interesting that the players who have concussions diagnosed, or have concussions look bad on television, don't get calls while other ones who probably are getting them but are hiding them continue to play."
And as Collie pointed out, he was ripe to become a poster child during a time in which concussion awareness was taking off, even if the reality is that he might not be at significantly more risk than many of his NFL peers who have suffered less acute head injuries.
He became an easy target. Popular pundits called on the Colts to essentially "do the right thing" and let him go while urging Collie to retire. The leader of that pack might have been Bob Kravitz, who in 2012 wrote a piece for The Indianapolis Star pushing for the Colts to part ways with Collie.
Kravitz hasn't changed his tune.
"I believe that he's taking a risk that he really shouldn't be taking," Kravitz told Bleacher Report. "He's a young guy with a nice, young family, and I think he's being shortsighted. I was at those games where he was knocked out cold and it was frightening. You thought he was dead on the field. Young guys think they're impervious to these sorts of things that can happen later in life and I hope for his sake that he's OK, but I've talked with several of his old teammates who all say the same thing: He has to get out while he still can."
Kravitz notes "there are a litany of smart, young guys who had all of the [concussion] information at their disposal who ended up having grave difficulties after their careers were over," but the reality is a lot of the information Collie has is relatively new. In that respect, it's fair to wonder if analysts like Kravitz are perpetuating misconceptions.
"I think it's unquestionably a problem for those who have [concussions] on national TV, where everybody sees it and everybody remembers it and everybody talks about it," Boston University concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu told Bleacher Report. "As opposed to somebody who got it in a practice or it was never brought to public attention."
This might also be about old habits. Not even two decades ago, concussions received grades, just like sprains. And as University of Colorado concussion researcher Dr. Dawn Comstock told Bleacher Report, those scales basically centered on the loss of consciousness.
"Now we know that specific symptoms don't seem to be as important as number of symptoms and how long it takes to be resolved," said Comstock. "So an athlete that loses consciousness for a minute on national TV but doesn't have any other symptoms actually may have a much better short- and long-term prognosis than an athlete who has a headache and light sensitivity that lingers for two months."
"Just because it looks bad," added Comstock, "doesn't mean it is bad."
That might mean Collie is the victim here in more ways than one.
No magic number
Even if we set aside the fact Collie suffered two concussions that were visually unpleasant, it might be more fair to consider that he was diagnosed with three of them in less than two years. That's obviously far from ideal, but there's actually little set-in-stone evidence that indicates those concussions make him more likely to suffer more of them.
"There's no magic number of concussions and symptoms at the time of injury don't correlate well with severity of injury," said Nowinski. "Trying to predict future risk of concussion is very imperfect science. In choosing whether or not to sign someone with a concussion history, people are likely guessing. Players just get a reputation that they can't shake, whether it's deserved or not."
So much research is being conducted, but the problem is that researchers are working with a sample that is limited by the fact very little quality research was performed before this era. As a result, it's still impossible to gauge long-term effects based on severity of concussions, quantity of concussions or symptoms related to concussions.
"We just don't have enough data yet to make firm recommendations," said Bazarian, who noted all studies are retrospective, relying on the memories of former athletes.
In other words, relying on the unreliable.
Right now, experts are focusing on symptoms and the duration in which they linger.
"We don't just look at numbers of concussions, but we look at how severe the concussions have been and concussions that have symptoms that have lasted many months are a different magnitude of brain injury than concussions that have symptoms that just last for days or a few weeks," said Cantu. "So certainly suffering three concussions wouldn't necessarily stand out for an NFL player. Many, many NFL players are playing with more than three recognized concussions."
So what this might come down to for Collie is the one variable we can't fully account for, which is how long his symptoms lasted. In all three cases, though, he was able to gain medical clearance quite swiftly. So if it boils down merely to his current neurological state, it appears Collie might be far from crazy.
"He doesn't take the volume of sub-concussive trauma that players at some other positions might take—like linemen," said Cantu. "And all of the trauma counts, not just the concussions but the sub-concussions."
The risk/reward factor has to be considered both in terms of why Collie doesn't have an NFL job, as well as why he continues to play football, despite everything his brain has been through.
First, teams have to weigh whether Collie is worth the risk from that aforementioned optics standpoint. If you're good enough, they'll pay you to play regardless of almost anything.
The reality is Collie might not be good enough to compensate for the fact he's a concussion lightning rod. He was a part of some stacked offenses during most of his time with the Colts, but the 2009 fourth-round pick out of BYU never had more than 60 catches or 676 yards and never scored more than eight touchdowns in a single season.
If he truly was an elite player, he'd have an NFL job regardless of a perceived stigma.
It's been three years since Collie last suffered a diagnosed concussion, and as BC Lions general manager Wally Buono pointed out to Bleacher Report, several NFL teams have deemed him fit to play football since. After returning from that third concussion in 2012, he suffered a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee. That's why he spent the majority of that season on injured reserve, so this isn't just about his brain.
Trainer Jordan Pendleton, who has been working with Collie for about a year, suggested this week to Bleacher Report that for Collie, the knee is a much greater concern than the brain.
"He ruptured his patellar tendon," Pendleton said. "That's why he was out that year. It wasn't because of the concussions. So he's been fighting to get back from a severe knee injury. No one understands that he hurt his knee, which is unfortunate. That's what he's been battling with the most, and no one even knows he hurt it because everyone just assumes he wasn't playing because of concussions."
|Austin Collie: Injury timeline|
|Ankle||Sept. 2007 at BYU||1 game|
|Ribs||Oct. 2007 at BYU||Left game|
|Hand||Nov. 2010 in Indy||1 game|
|Concussion||Nov. 2010 in Indy||4 games|
|Concussion||Dec. 2010 in Indy||3 games|
|Knee||Aug. 2011 in Indy||1 preseason|
|Foot||Aug. 2011 in Indy||2 preseason|
|Concussion||Aug. 2012 in Indy||2 games|
|Knee||Sept. 2012 in Indy||14 games|
According to Pendleton, doctors told Collie he wasn't going to be able to play again after suffering that knee injury in September 2012.
"We don't even talk about his head," he said. "It just keeps getting brought up."
That might be why Collie doesn't seem to be as concerned as a lot of the folks watching and judging from the proverbial sidelines. He's an adult, and it appears he believes the reward that comes from making a living playing football is worth the existing risks.
"I want to protect people's brains, but I also recognize that sports have huge benefits," said Bazarian. "Right now, people have to decide based on very limited information on their own perception of, 'What is the benefit of the sport to me versus this unknown risk?'"
When asked about that risk, Buono fired back with a question: "How many lives have sports saved?"
"Yes," he admitted, "there are casualties. There are athletes who get damaged." But some jobs are more dangerous than others, and we really don't spend much time criticizing those who decide to become loggers or fishers in Alaska.
That's why Buono didn't experience any sort of moral crisis when deciding to sign Collie.
"The NFL signs players who I'm not sure I would sign," he told B/R. "I'm not sure I would sign a player who has a record of assault, and the NFL has done that. I'm not judging them. All I'm saying is when they did it they looked at all the issues and they felt it was worth doing. And there was a risk for them and there's a risk for me."
"I'm not concerned," Buono added, "because if our medical staff feel that Austin Collie is not fit to play football, he will never step on the field."
Not a black or white issue
Collie turned down a chance to speak with Bleacher Report for this article, but clearly his priority is to continue playing football. He wants to keep his head down, pass his physical at the end of April, gain medical clearance to participate in contact practices with the Lions in May and begin to work on eliminating that perceived stigma. If he can do that, he might stand a chance of turning that risk/reward factor for NFL teams back in his favor.
To some, that might sound like a crazy endeavor. To others, purely courageous. But don't discount the idea that Austin Collie could, in the eyes of many, be both crazy and courageous at the same time.
In fact, you could probably say the same thing about Chris Borland, which just goes to show how complex the concussion issue has become.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.