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John Doherty

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The Bears were 5 1/2 point favorites going into their game with the Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover, MD on Monday night. Part of the oddsmakers’ calculus was the unavailability of Washington’s All-Pro tight end Jordan Reed.

The hosts had been counting on Reed to be a major cog in their offensive machine going into the season. However, he has been unable to play since suffering a concussion during the Redskins’ third preseason game.

Then on Sunday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that not only is Reed’s season in jeopardy but so is his career. Multiple published reports have the six-year pro with “multiple” concussions in his career, so many, that the exact number is unsure. Consequently, at age 29, and apparently recovering slowly, the thought is he may not play a seventh season.

Just a year older, and having played the same position as Reed, New England’s Rob Gronkowski retired due to injury shortly after the Patriots’ Super Bowl win in February.

Feeling better of late and never shy around a microphone, Gronkowski said earlier this month that he feels well enough to return but just doesn’t feel like playing. He’s enjoying himself too much, so he says, peddling CBD products.

The science behind that stuff is uncertain enough.

However, what he said during a recent interview on CBS Sports Network defies all logic. He claimed he was “fixed” despite multiple major injuries, some that required surgery, and others that included at least 20 concussions, five of which caused him to “black out.” Worse, he then tweeted that chronic traumatic encephalopathy is fixable and “I fixed mine.”

The science would say otherwise.

First, there is no way of knowing that Gronkowski has CTE. The dreaded degenerative brain condition is diagnosable only via autopsy. Yet if he does have it, there is no cure.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, Gronkowski is neither a physician nor a neuroscientist. I suspect that for the perennial All-Pro, concussion, its effects, and CTE are all the same. They are not.

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Even so, one is unlikely to be fully “fixed” after as many concussions as he has experienced. He may feel well now. Yet, multiple studies out of the University of North Carolina have demonstrated that those who have suffered three or more concussions are five times more likely than normal to experience Mild Cognitive Impairment later in life and three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression.

Chris Nowinski, PhD, a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler, was forced to retire after a 2003 concussion. Since then, he has become a forceful advocate for concussion awareness, co-founding the Concussion Legacy Foundation which is affiliated with Boston University. The CEO of the foundation, he engaged Gronkowski on Twitter regarding CTE.

Unfortunately, given the brevity enforced by Twitter, Nowinski also seemed to equate concussion and CTE. Still, research out of BU — some co-authored by Nowinski — has repeatedly demonstrated that number of concussions is not a risk factor for CTE. Instead, years of playing a collision sport is.

As for a certain number of concussions requiring retirement, there is no set figure there, either.

The expert consensus is that multiple factors should be considered when contemplating ending a career.

If signs and symptoms have not cleared, then one may not return. After recovery seems complete, if there have been multiple incidents, increasing frequency should cause concern; so should increasing recovery time, as well as an obvious decrease in the force required to cause a concussion.

Those are the reasons multiple baseball catchers and umpires, football players, hockey players, soccer players, and wrestlers have retired.

Those factors being absent also explain why other athletes have returned despite fretting in the media.

The best example locally is Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford. Injured in January 2018, he never returned that season. Even by the start of the 2018-19 season, he was not fully recovered, coming back last October, only to suffer another concussion in December.

As the recovery from that one initially wore on, the fear was that he was done. However, he ultimately recovered far more quickly and was able to return two — rather than nine — months later. Thus, he continues playing, having turned aside 23 of 24 shots in a preseason win over the Red Wings just last week.

John Doherty is a licensed athletic trainer and physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at jdoherty@comhs.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.

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