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Austin Collie, the 49ers, and the danger of concussions

The San Francisco 49ers sign free agent Austin Collie. We examine his past concussion injuries, the nature of his slot role as wide receiver, and the risk of potential further head trauma.

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Andy Lyons

As many know, my articles on Niners Nation usually focus on the medical side of things. I have wanted to write on concussions for some time, but I know it is not a popular subject with most fans. I understand the NFL concussion lawsuit seems frivolous or overblown to some of you. It is the nature of the sport, right? Football is dangerous.

Football is not a dangerous sport -- it is a violent sport. And, we love it. We ease our couch-potato consciences by pointing to the multi-million dollar salaries of professional athletes, who "should know the risk" associated with football. Of all injury-related debates, however, concussions have generated the most rhetoric. It is a tough issue to delve into.

The NFL faces several issues when it comes to the treatment and prevention of concussions. In my opinion, concussion prevention has to start early. It must begin with young players learning proper and safer ways to tackle. Technique can go a long way toward keeping players safe from concussions. Still, another thing must be addressed.

Nobody wants to get labeled as a guy who gets concussed.

This label is feared even in high school and continues through college. A lot of kids suffer concussions and many go unreported and unrecorded. And, it is compounded at the NFL level. Players are not forthright about their health, especially if it might jeopardize their careers and their paychecks.

A secure veteran player with a big contract is probably going to be more honest to the team doctors about his medical situation. On the other hand, an unsigned free agent (in the middle of training camp) like Austin Collie, seeking a backup wide receiver position with the 49ers, is less likely to speak up about any concussion symptoms.

Not even 10 months ago, Austin Collie ruptured his patella tendon and it ended his last season with the Colts. The patella tendon is what connects your kneecap to your shinbone. Before the rupture, Collie suffered from patella tendonitis. Following the surgical repair, Collie stated the rupture was actually a blessing. His knee might be better than before. Chronic tendonitis can be debilitating, so that is good news.

However, what likely concerns teams is what concerns me: the severity of his concussions.

Unlike his ruptured patella tendon, there is no surgery or rehab program that can repair the damage caused by these concussions. There is no such thing as coming back from concussions. Concussions are not something to roll your eyes at. A 15-millisecond impact is equivalent to 100 Gs of force. That is like getting smashed in the head with a sledgehammer.

Concussions are common, but the prognosis of concussions vary -- depending on the severity of injury. According to Lauren Frey, permanent disability is believed to occur in 10% of mild injuries, 66% of moderate injuries and 100% of severe injuries. Research has shown severe injuries can lead to lead to a number of cognitive, behavioral, and physical impairments (e.g., dementia, memory problems, and parkinsonism).

I do not blame Collie for wanting to play. A day after he signed with the 49ers, I was not surprised when articles came forward with his statements, "I'm not going to put myself at risk." He's not going to put himself at risk? Every time he steps on the field he takes a risk. All football players do. Surely, the NFL understands the risk. Before he could step on the field he had to sign a waiver releasing the NFL from liability. He is not ignoring the risk, he isn't even considering it.

What is more, because of his history of severe concussions, Collie is susceptible to more head trauma. Moreover, we must consider Collie's job description.

Collie is not the taller receiver who goes to the outside of the field and he is not a high speed guy. His style of play has been defined by his willingness to run routes in the middle of the field. And, by definition, it is a risky area for a wide receiver. Defensive backs have the ability to sit back and read the crossing pattern the receiver is running toward him. It gives a defender the chance to time his hit perfectly for the moment a receiver is most vulnerable: when he's looking over his shoulder focused on the catch, not the contact.

One of those hits is shown below. Please do not watch if you are squeamish, but the video shows the route and the defensive back waiting to blow him up.

Here's another awful hit causing him to lay motionless for almost 10 minutes. Nobody would classify it as mild.

Whether or not Collie understands his job and his route running is inherently risky is irrelevant. We know football is dangerous. We know running routes up the middle exposes wide receivers to greater chances of injury. The nature of the plays and especially against certain defenders, makes Collie more vulnerable. If he runs these routes, he needs to get down quickly (if possible) and learn how to protect himself. Otherwise, he's at risk for serious injury.

I am all for making football safer; however, player safety cannot be guaranteed by a rule book. I understand where Roger Goodell is going with these rules (i.e., an attempt to shift liability), but legislating rules has not guaranteed protection for Collie or any other player in the NFL. We have seen the NFL fine and suspend players. But, has it deterred the dangerous plays out of the game? Hardly.

Frankly, there's no easy answer to the concussion question. Collie appears to be a stand-up person and a hard worker. Still, I have a lot of reservations about his ability to stay safe out there. And, I am not sure he really understands there is risk, when he states "I'm not going to put myself at risk."

I think Collie could have value, but the 49ers will have to be cautious. Perhaps, the team can find ways to utilize him in pinch situations. The offensive coaches must try to develop safer routes, help him recognize how to beat a zone and protect himself in the process. One way or another, Collie will have to learn or the 49ers will find a different player who can.

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