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Loris Karius, Head Injuries, and the Need for Change in Football

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Following Loris Karius’ Champions League final concussion one thing is clear—the game needs to change.

Real Madrid v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Jurgen Klopp did not mince words in his first set of public comments regarding Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius, his reported concussion, and the Champions League Final. In typical Klopp gusto and warmth, Jurgen put his arm around the young German keeper and bluntly indicated that Karius had in fact suffered a concussion in the match. Citing it as an “explanation, not an excuse,” Klopp also shared a bit more insight into how the entire situation played out behind the scenes.

As if addressing the chorus of concerned voices that rose after it was made known that Karius may have suffered concussion in the match - among those voices being my own specifically feeling a bit miffed that our medical staff missed the incident and made no clear attempts to even diagnose a head injury - Klopp provided a rather startling story involving Franz Beckenbauer and a kind-of VAR investigation.

“After four days I got a call from Franz Beckenbauer, our Bobby Moore, our biggest football player who is a good friend of mine. He called me and said he came from a doctor, he told me: ‘your goalkeeper had a concussion.’ I said, ‘what?’ because in the game, from my position that situation is not very good to see: ‘maybe there was contact or not.’ I told him immediately, ‘OK’. He said the doctor is the most famous doctor in Germany. I said: ‘OK, give me a few minutes, I have to fix a few things.’

So, it appears that Klopp got the news days after the match and immediately got to rectifying things. And, in what sounds almost like a forensic investigation, Detective Klopp finally pieced everything together: the young keeper had in fact had a concussion and needed to seek help. In classic Klopp honesty and managerial tenderness, he not only indicated how little he’d known about concussions before hand, but he also made sure to protect his player from the undue criticism he’d received following the biggest gaffes on the biggest stage he’d ever completed.

It’s also implied from further comments that Klopp appears to have no qualms whatsoever about going into next season with Loris Karius as his Number 1:

“I got all the pictures from different perspectives, saw it and thought: ‘how can we all think that the boy who didn’t show any weakness in that game until then made these big mistakes in a very important game and nobody thinks it’s because of the knock he got?’ How can we think that? That was, for me, the explanation and I thought: ‘OK, come on, we need to check that.’

“I thought it was too late, you cannot check that. But now I know a concussion isn’t coming and going in a day – if you have one, you see it days later. Five days after the final, Loris had 26 of 30 markers for a concussion still. That’s clear.

All told, it’s not exactly new news, but it is good to see Jurgen do was we expect: protect his players and to provide better insight into how this situation was handled from the beginning. It doesn’t go unsaid, either, that Karius took ownership of his role in the missed diagnosis as Jurgen indicated that Karius himself did not know he was feeling the effect of a concussion. Which is not surprising but is alarming because that seems to follow from the concept of head injuries and also likely speaks to the competitive nature of football as an occupation.

My hope is that the team physios and coaching staff start to work out a better system that will ensure that they don’t have to 100% rely on a freshly concussed player to self-diagnose before action takes place. Especially considering the ways in which playing through injury are incentivized. More, I hope that the broader footballing community sees this and other moments in football as signs for a needed change both to the culture and to the system as it relates to how we address head injuries.

It can be difficult to move that needle especially in men’s sport, where, as we’ve noted, performative masculinity necessarily burdens the players with waving off injury. And in a sporting culture that would lionize Monty Python’s Black Knight for soldiering on with dignity and a stiff - if mauled - upper lip, it would appear that mountain may in fact be too tall a task.

Combining that with the ways in which this system infused with vast sums of money, that makes commodities out of people, and does so little to prevent injury, the push for change will indeed be difficult. But it is necessary. Because as much as I enjoy making Twitter jokes around the theme of Loris Karius being The Singularity, he is in fact a man. And we know that human bodies get hurt and we know that, in this sport, those human bodies are under intense pressure to play through injury. We must work and advocate for a system that honors these player’s sacrifice of their bodies for our enjoyment by disincentivizing playing while hurt and working on ways to take the decision to be substituted due to things as serious as head injuries out of the hands of footballers.

Change will always be met by scrutiny, criticism, and resistance from people who wish to perpetuate harmful systems. But we cannot allow that resistance to prevent us from doing what’s right. I hope Reds fans in places of influence will reach out and raise their voices to ensure that it doesn’t take 5 or 6 days for a player to know they’ve been concussed and to receive treatment. Nothing in the Karius incident felt right and my hope is that as we move forward, it will one day become nearly impossible to replicate.