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Thursday July 31 2014
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Check Your Head

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The Penguins are just one month away from hitting the ice again and that means the return of Evgeni Malkin, and, hopefully, Sidney Crosby. We say hopefully when it comes to Sid because the Pens' captain hasn't played a hockey game since the first week of January.

The concussion—or concussions—he suffered early this year have rendered Crosby unable to resume doing the thing he does better than anyone else alive. The head trauma first prevented him from doing much of anything other than lying still, and despite the passage of more than eight months, Crosby has yet to do much more than skate.

And he had to stop doing even that in April because of recurring concussion-like symptoms.

His doctors expect him to return, the team believes he'll return, and the fans hope he'll return.

But Sid's return is not a certainty.

It's a troubling possibility and somewhat frightening to discuss, but it IS a possibility. Prior examples are plentiful.

Eric Lindros. Merril Hoge. Wayne Chrebet. Just three examples of careers cut short due to clustered concussions over a short period of time.

Sid just had one issue, however, this past January. But one is enough, as the Twins' Justin  Morneau and the Mets' Jason Bay can attest.

Morneau was hitting .345 at the halfway point last season, on pace for 36 homeruns and 112 RBI, when he suffered a concussion on July 7. He missed the rest of the season.

Today, in the middle of what should be the prime of the 30-year-old's career, Morneau—who was averaging 31 homers, 116 RBI and hitting .298 during the four-and-half years before the concussion—struggled to a .226 average with just 4 homeruns and 16 RBI before being sidelined with another injury in June. To say he's not been the same player since the head injury is an understatement.

Jason Bay hit .279 and averaged 31 homers and 103 RBI between 2005 and 2009. The former Pirate suffered a season-ending concussion late last summer and now is batting .230 with 6 homers and 31 RBI.

It's not clear that concussions are the primary reasons Morneau and Bay are struggling. Bay's offensive production was down even before his head injury, and Morneau has suffered several other injuries that may or may not be related his concussion. It is clear, however, that they've not come anywhere near their pre-injury levels of production.

There are plenty of examples of players who have returned from nasty concussions to play well again (Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Kurt Warner), and perhaps that's what Sidney Crosby will do. We've certainly learned that it's unwise to bet against No. 87.

But when MVP-caliber talents like Morneau, Bay and Crosby miss large chunks of seasons, it's no wonder professional sports leagues try to change a few rules to better protect their players.

Of course the players themselves don't take kindly to rule-changes. The James Harrison’s of the world want to keep playing the only way they know how: with reckless abandon and little or no concern for safety – the opponent's or their own.

So it's up to the leagues to protect them – from themselves. Hockey players would not be wearing helmets unless the league mandated that they do so. The same can be said for batting helmets in baseball, face masks in football and nearly every piece of protective equipment worn in athletic competition. It's no different when it comes to rule changes or enforcement. Those involved resist at first; they struggle with the transition. But soon enough it simply becomes part of the game.

The NFL—and the NHL and every other sport that is addressing head injuries—is absolutely correct in re-evaluating their rules, even though the re-evaluations have been far from mistake free.

But a few months (or even years) of bumbling through a transition period is worth it.

Consider that the next time you watch Crosby thread a tape-to-tape pass to Geno in front of the net.

Assuming we get to see that again.

I was in a minor league press box in Charlotte, NC, last month, taking in one of Gregory Polanco’s final triple-A games. A colleague, upon learning I was from Pittsburgh, approached me with a question.
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