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The bright side of the Malik McDowell affair

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If the Seahawks’ 2017 draft pick never plays in the NFL, take that as a sign of the improvement in the league’s concussion climate

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Reports that Malik McDowell still hasn’t been medically cleared by the Seattle Seahawks, and that Seattle plans to release the 2017 second round pick without him ever playing a snap in the NFL, are obviously bad news for McDowell and for the Seahawks—and, less directly but more widely felt, bad news for all the fans hoping the organization’s recent draft investments successfully restock the roster with premier talent.

But there is a way to look at the situation as a fortunate signal.

It comes as slight consolation to the 21 year old who imagined a long and productive career, but the caution applied to McDowell’s injury shows improvement in the way NFL teams and their medical staff—and the culture of football at large—treat recovery from traumatic brain injuries and assess ongoing health risk for those players who have suffered them. From this perspective McDowell’s medical sabbatical is a product not only of his accident but of the league’s increased awareness around the seriousness of concussions and their long term effects, and the outcome could end up saving his life.

Monday, around the same time as the recent McDowell development surfaced, the NFL released results of its 2018 helmet laboratory performance testing, including a prohibition against 10 of the 34 helmets tested. This is just the second year the league has publicly produced such a comprehensive equipment test, and the first time it included an outright ban on failing helmets. It’s taken years of public pressure, lawsuits from former players, media investigations and obfuscation by the league to reach this point, but these studies and implementation of their findings should eventually make playing professional football safer.

Incidentally, the top helmet tested is produced by local Seattle manufacturer VICIS, a tech company featuring investment by none other than the Seahawks’ Doug Baldwin and Russell Wilson, and worn on the field last year by Baldwin, Wilson, Richard Sherman, Cliff Avril and Justin Britt, among others.

Of course, better-designed helmets wouldn’t have saved McDowell’s tragedy since his injury came off the field, but as we have discovered over the years from depositions and exposés for decades the NFL community showed as little care for post-concussion care as it did for prevention. Making the game itself safer is only one face of the league’s concussion crisis; the other has been the murky management of these potentially fatal traumas however they arise.

The fact is, 10 years ago, McDowell’s crash would most likely have been looked at by the club as a brief setback, not a potential career-altering event. Before the lasting effects of tau proteins and chronic traumatic encephalopathy became known, team doctors probably would have had McDowell suited up as soon as his external bruising healed, potentially putting his life and future health in greater danger. Instead, the team has proceeded with extreme forbearance at great cost to its own capital investment.

So in a weird way, as much a bummer as it is, the McDowell story represents a kind of victory for NFL concussion awareness. The road to this moment is paved with hundreds of instances of personal and family tragedy, and we are hardly at the end of the journey. But Malik McDowell doesn’t have to be a poster boy for squandered talent; you can also view him as a survivor rescued by advances away from a toxic and lethal culture. If he never does get to play again it may take time for his own disappointment to recede, but hopefully he can lead his life that way for much longer.