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Anthony Rizzo’s concussion affair is malpractice

Failing to monitor and protect your own players is as low a moment as this franchise has ever seen.

MLB: New York Yankees at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know that your brain sits relatively freely in the skull? It’s not really tied down to anything. It’s just sitting there, surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid to protect against mild impacts to the head. A concussion begins at the point where that fluid is no longer sufficient protection, where an impact or torsion is so great the biological defense we’ve evolved is overwhelmed. The brain slides around your skull, hitting bone hard enough to cause damage to the tissue and dysfunction of your neurons. The extent of that damage and the force required to impart it varies between incidents — a concussion of identical severity can result from two impacts of different severities.

Perhaps nothing in sports has changed as dramatically as the way we talk about blows to the head. Oklahoma drills were a staple of football training camps; now, players wear padded helmets until the games count for real. Don Cherry’s Rock ‘em Sock ‘em videos glorified hockey’s headhunters and fighters, and professional wrestlers wore unprotected chair shots as a badge of honor. In the last 15 years or so, advancements in our understanding of concussion-borne brain damage, those golden-brown protein deposits characteristic of CTE that choke away memory and deregulate mood, that slur speech and deafen ears, has completely altered how we see those high-impact hits that were once culturally celebrated.

Those medical advancements often come at the cost of a dead athlete. Brain damage is difficult to assess without an autopsy of the brain itself — it wasn’t until doctors could examine Chris Benoit or Junior Seau’s gray matter that we came to understand they had the neural function of octogenarian dementia patients. This kind of trauma is some of the most serious we can inflict on ourselves, and it’s the kind that we need to be most stringent in protecting against.

I know a lot about concussions, because I’ve had at least six that I know of. I’ve fractured my skull and had meetings with neurologists while in middle school. I missed 64 days of school one year because of brain fog, migraines, and dizziness — my parents needed a special exemption from the province to allow me to advance a grade. I know there’s a good possibility as I get older that the long-term effects of those blows to the head will add up, and I wonder if the mental health issues I struggle with right now are at least partially attributed to my brain smashing around inside my skull.

I say that I know I’ve had six because diagnosing a concussion is pretty difficult. The brain is as complex a system as you can find in nature; sometimes after a sufficiently hard blow, it will enter a kind of “safe mode,” where you don’t appear to be affected as long as the body is still deemed to be in danger. The brain essentially overrides critical systems to get you out of the dangerous situation, then resets later. Sometimes, you lose consciousness and the impact of the trauma is more evident. As former pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who to this day takes seizure medicine following a 2012 comebacker, can attest, even tests designed to protect athletes can often fail them:

One of the critical elements to proper care after a concussion is observation. Since you can pass tests and initial reaction to impact can be so variable, you’ve got to keep your eye on a patient and see if there are changes in behavior or production, like say, going from an All-Star to the worst hitter in baseball.

Yes, this is about Anthony Rizzo, who was moved to the IL yesterday with concussion symptoms that traced back to May 28th, when he collided with Fernando Tatis Jr. On that day, Rizzo had notched a 146 wRC+ in 53 games, second-best on the team. In the 47 games since, he’s lost 102 points off that mark. Every blog and every tweet was drawing a connection that the New York Yankees missed: something was very, very wrong with Anthony Rizzo.

For two months, the Yankees have been watching this guy completely forget how to play baseball, and it never occurred to them that his unprotected head slamming into a 220-pound outfielder might have been the cause. This goes so far beyond the regular complaints about the New York Yankees that it creeps into abject malpractice. This isn’t even in the same universe as having a bad trade deadline strategy or arrogant front office attitude; this is about neglecting your employee’s long-term health.

In so many ways, professional athletes need to be protected from themselves. They have been raised to “play through it,” and with the additional context of a floundering offense and no Aaron Judge, Rizzo wasn’t going to pull himself out of the lineup. It’s up to the team to pull him aside and ask hard questions about why he seemingly lost all his natural talent for baseball, and it’s up to the team to do an ounce of critical thinking about the Tatis collision and what Rizzo’s played like since then.

Aaron Boone replaced Joe Girardi as Yankees manager and later got extended because he’s supposedly this excellent communicator who really knows how to build positive relationships with his players. Eric Cressey was brought in to develop a more comprehensive and customized training program for players, knowing that the strength and conditioning needs of Giancarlo Stanton are going to be different from those of Harrison Bader. These are two of the organization’s leaders who are supposed to be absolutely in sync with their players, and neither of them seemed to notice their first baseman walking around the clubhouse in a haze.

AND THIS IS THE SECOND TIME IT’S HAPPENED.

Clint Frazier vacillated between double vision and clouded vision as he struggled with post-concussion symptoms, and the Yankees couldn’t catch that either. I’m not asking Cressey to do a neurology residency; I’m asking that the organization that outwardly appears so meticulous and so detail-oriented pay attention to the details.

That this club was so ignorant of the details only went deeper last night, after the Yankees beat the Astros.

So, credit to Rizzo, he actually stepped up and said “Hey, I’m not right”. We’ve seen players from Greg Bird to Aaron Judge himself play through injury because it’s What You’re Supposed To Do, and even Rizzo realized that if something is off, it needs to get fixed. And apparently there was never a consideration of sitting him, of taking the time to properly assess what was going on. Rub some dirt on it kid, get back out there.

And here we come to the great Boone Paradox. If there really never was a consideration that Rizzo would sit, then there are only two possible answers; either Aaron Boone does not care about the health of his players, or Aaron Boone is too impotent to advocate for those players. Nobody listens to him. Either one renders him unfit to manage this team. The organizational rot that has crept into the foundation of the New York Yankees goes much deeper than who sits in the manager’s office, but he’s unfit all the same.

That multiple players have now suffered through months of symptoms is rank incompetence and there’s no telling the extent of long-term damage that can come from it. Every concussion is a traumatic event, and while both Rizzo and Frazier will hopefully not deal with the life-altering consequences of tau protein buildup, the fact that their team allowed them to suffer for months without raising any critical questions is more than an embarrassment. It should be a call for re-organization.

More and more, the entire franchise seems incoherent. There seems to be multiple directions the club wants to head in, the owner can’t understand why fans are frustrated, and the GM is convinced he’s the smartest guy in the room. All of those are occupational hazards of sports, and the Yankees aren’t unique in suffering through them. Neglecting the health of their players, especially at a time that the culture knows and understands the risk of head trauma more than ever before, goes beyond. If this kind of mismanagement doesn’t convince ownership that significant changes to the structure and culture of the org needs to change, it’s hard to imagine what will.