Commentary

Safe to say Bears should sit Cutler

Players, fans learn to live with football's risks, but some aren't worth taking

Updated: November 15, 2012, 12:25 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It's difficult to argue that Jay Cutler should play Monday night in San Francisco.

We know too much about the brain and concussions. We know too little.

I don't want to browbeat Chicago Bears fans into feeling guilty about liking football and wanting their star quarterback on the field in a fairly important game -- or worse, to get on some kind of moral high horse about the dangers of the game.

I don't profess to be an expert on brain injuries and concussions. I could quote the usual experts, cut and paste information about brain injuries, but let's be honest: You're not going to find any doctors, or ex-players, who will suggest it's a good idea for Cutler and the Bears to roll the metaphorical dice and line up against a "head-hunting defense" (backup quarterback Jason Campbell's words) one week after suffering a concussion.

Most would probably advise more than a week of rest. Any doctor worth the hippocratic oath would probably say, "Human beings really shouldn't be playing football if they value their health."

One thing I do know is that Cutler will get hit in the head again. And again and again and again. He will get drilled, slammed, shoved and bounced off the turf. When he retires, he will have a number of physical ailments and maybe, down the road, some brain trauma.

There are some who believe this is the life you choose as a football player, now more knowingly than in the past. There are others who believe the barbarism of the game is outdated. Most of us are probably in that middle ground, where we no longer cheer when a quarterback is flattened or a receiver blindsided, but we don't turn off the game either.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
Brian Cassella/Getty ImagesAs quarterback, Jay Cutler knows big hits from defenders like the Texans' J.J. Watt are just part of the job.

But how should Bears fans feel about Cutler? I'm guessing all but the meatiest of meatheads are cool with Cutler sitting this one out. Frankly, I don't think he'd have that good of a game against San Francisco anyway. But let's say this were a playoff game. I'd argue that if Cutler was cleared by the league's protocol, he should play and so would you. Cutler would definitely argue it.

Thinking about this topic, I reached out to Adam Waytz, an assistant professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, who has a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Chicago. Waytz uses cognitive neuroscience and social psychology in his research. He also is a part-time sportswriter who used to write for the late, great FreeDarko collective.

Waytz had two interconnecting, scientific thoughts on the psychology of being a football fan, which I think are valuable.

"One is that I think enjoyment of violent sports requires a certain level of moral disengagement, or convincing oneself that typical moral norms don't apply to people putting themselves in harm's way," he wrote in an e-mail. "One of the most common ways to engage in moral disengagement is through dehumanization of whoever might be experiencing harm. In other words, dehumanization allows us to say, 'If they aren't human, then harm isn't morally wrong.' I think we treat these athletes as nonhuman in order to minimize the guilt we might otherwise experience over harm being inflicted.

"The second thought is about the way we dehumanize these athletes, which is not necessarily through treating these athletes as subhuman, but rather through denying them a particular human capacity, which is the capacity to feel pain. In fact, I think we treat these athletes as having a high degree of agency -- the distinctively human ability to act and to act with purpose. But research has shown that the more we treat people as having a high degree of agency, the less we consider them to have a high capacity for feeling. In other words, we see athletes as superagents, which therefore reduces our ability to see them as experiencers of pain and pleasure."

It's a great point. It's not as if fans don't care, it's just that we see them as being almost super-human. It probably would've helped people relate to Cutler in that NFC championship if he didn't always sport that grimace, but I see his point. We've been trained to treat athletes as "superagents" and football is certainly dehumanizing. But it's also a sport that, for some, is life-changing and uplifting. Football has given Cutler millions of dollars, a free education, fame, fun, you name it.

When any football player takes a nasty hit, I worry, now more than ever. But like Waytz wrote, I look at football players as being more than human, especially since I interview them after games and they seem normal.

Like I said, I don't want to make you feel guilty about liking football. I certainly don't feel bad for covering it. These players are highly compensated, financially and otherwise. They are well-trained and taken care of, to a degree. While that shouldn't take away their humanity, there are tradeoffs in all forms of life.

I come from coal and steel country, and there are a lot of men who would kill for the wages they used to earn toiling in coke furnaces and mines.

But there has to be a middle ground and, slowly, the NFL is moving toward it. I'm not saying "trust team doctors and the league," because there are obvious dueling agendas in place. But there are ways to make the game safer, if only in theory, and caution and rest are ways to do it.

But there will never be a solution for a headhunting linebacker slamming into a quarterback at full speed. After getting slammed to the ground by Ndamukong Suh earlier this season, Cutler brushed off concern. While I saw a violent act, Cutler saw it as football. Is it Suh's fault he's insanely athletic at a large size? Suh was not fined, which was the right call.

"It's just natural; you kind of learn how to take hits as a quarterback throughout the years," Cutler said. "I took some shots and playing here I've taken some shots.

"You learn how to do it, but in the same sense, you've got to play your game. You've got to play your style of football and running around, trying to make plays is kind of part of my game. So it's risk, reward."

Risk. Reward. Those two words encapsulate the NFL experience for players, now more than ever.

The good news for relatively young players like Cutler is that there is more research being done, more advancements being funded, on brain injuries. Maybe there will be a cure for CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the "neurodegenerative disease that occurs years or decades after recovery from the acute or postacute effects of head trauma."

(That definition is from the research paper, "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: A Potential Late Effect of Sport-Related Concussive and Subconcussive Head Trauma," published in Clinics in Sports Medicine and found at the Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy website.)

Cutler is probably safer than most of his teammates because he doesn't get hit in practice or training camp. But every time Cutler, or any quarterback, is blasted, it's easier to see and more important to the bottom line.

Less discussed are the subconcussive hits the linemen absorb and dish out, the head slaps, the collisions in the trenches. As you might expect, fewer people are debating whether or not defensive lineman Shea McClellin should play.

Cutler needs to sit out for his health, first and foremost. But also to further the evolution of the game.

It can be argued that stiffer penalties will force defensive players to change the way they tackle and limit blows to the head. Money, certainly, is the driving factor for many players. But for a lot of players at this level, there is no changing on the fly. Years of instruction and muscle memory are hard to remake. It's unfair to single out defenders who play by the rules at NFL speed. Others need to be policed. It just needs to be fair.

The game will evolve from the ground up, and the NFL has a duty to set a good example for children, teenagers and young adults. That's why Cutler can't play. That's why the NFL needs to keep up limiting contact in practice, so high school and college coaches follow suit.

Football will always be dangerous and that's part of the allure. I can deal with the cognitive dissonance of being a fan and a reporter of a destructive game. But it's in everyone's best interest to play it safe, especially in this case.

Well, as safe as possible, anyway.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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