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John Blanchette: Cougars’ wisest strategy would be to protect Luke Falk’s health

So there’s this about high-stakes football: Nobody can be trusted.

Whether it’s ball inflation or sign stealing, everyone’s looking for an edge. But that sort of espionage is cartoonish to a Mad Magazine, Spy-vs.-Spy extreme.

Then there’s Mike Leach’s laundry list of misgivings when it comes to the disclosure of even the most basic of injury information. The Washington State coach explained this week that he doesn’t even trust himself to get it right, doesn’t trust that opponents won’t make nefarious use of the information and doesn’t trust his players not to fall back on it as an excuse for potential failure –which, interestingly, has never stopped him from referencing his team’s youth and or making nuanced barbs about referee larceny, the two most potent excuse fertilizers on the market. Mostly, though, he’s heading off the possibility of the gendarmes busting down his door at 3 a.m. and hauling him off to HIPAA jail.

Speaking of cartoonish.

This is all tangential to the buzz du jour of the 2015 Apple Cup: the solemn, very un-cartoonish question of whether WSU quarterback Luke Falk will or won’t play, based on the observation that opponents have sent his head bouncing off the turf like a Spaldeen his last two games, and that he was carted off on a gurney last Saturday.

No one in football can be trusted, so perhaps it’s time for a wide, public appeal from the non-football folks. I’ll start.

Luke, don’t play.

This is just one layman hipshooting, but I have company.

“In watching the length of time he was lying on that field without much movement,” offered Bruce Becker, “this kid should be out for the season –maybe even bowl play afterward.”

Becker is actually by Dr. Bruce Becker, M.D., a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation. A Spokane resident since moving here in 1999 to become medical director of St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute, he also once had a clinical practice in Eugene where he worked with Olympic athletes and most recently directed a research institute at WSU until the funding went away. He’s also a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.

He reached out to The Spokesman-Review with some dismay after witnessing the knockdowns Falk suffered – first at UCLA two weeks ago, when he returned to perform spectacularly in the second half. Then came the tackle in the Colorado game, the gurney ride and the thumb’s-up signal from Falk which made the circumstances no less alarming.

“There’s no question in my mind that the likelihood he could pass the post-injury screening tools currently recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine are pretty damned low,” Becker said.

But not impossible.

And Becker is quick to note he has no connection to the WSU medical staff or specific knowledge of the depth of their testing of Falk’s condition this week.

Common sense says their procedures are independent, rigorous and through –and that they’re doing all they can do.

Unless they don’t say, uh, not this week, kid. That’s common sense, too.

I know. We’re supposed to put our trust in the science and not the eyeball test.

But what’s the win here, really, even if Falk plays, stays upright and leads the Cougars to a decisive victory? A “better” bowl game? If he gets his helmeted noggin spiked off the turf for a third straight game, and is again wheeled off, that’s going to be a bad look for Washington State no matter how many concussion tests the medical staff administered this week.

More to the point, it’s going to be bad for Falk.

“Concussions cause lasting injury when repeated – the evidence for this is overwhelming,” Becker said. “Increased damage from repetitive head injury is significant and profound. Why would you want to expose him to that until it’s clear beyond a doubt that he’s back to normal?”

Good question.

“The reality is, the economics behind that fricking game are so profound and present such an incredible conflict of interest – not just for a coach or a director of athletics or the university, but the player, too,” he said. “Nobody is wanting to play straight with what is happening.”

Meaning the player wants to play. The coach wants him available to play. The medical personnel are committed to do their best for the athletes in their care, but they don’t do their jobs in a vacuum.

“Athletes can lie,” Becker said. “The physicians are the most objective, but they’re also under tremendous pressure – from everyone, really. It’s an awkward position as a health professional, because there’s always so much at stake.

“I enjoy football and I played it,” he said. “But for what it’s doing to the people who play it, I think it’s a stupid damned game.”

Good thing there’s still time this week for one smart move.

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