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Chelsea, Courtois and second-guessing

Adrian Dennis / AFP

In any sort of analysis it's always wise to understand what you know as opposed to what your subjects know. From afar, there's a lot of information, even in something as widely broadcast as football. Even basic personnel decisions have background we're not privy to: a player might be off the pace in training, sick, or not buying into a manager's tactics. It's best, then, to have an appreciation of how what you don't know might change your opinion of a situation before blasting someone. Which isn't to say not to criticise, just to be understanding about it.

This takes us neatly to Thibaut Courtois.

When the Belgian took his hit from Alexis Sánchez on Sunday, the Internet blew up. This is unsurprising, of course: concussions in sports are a serious concern, and it's heartening to see the public at large wake up to issues of player health. But the problem with the public getting concerned about a subject they don't really understand is that reflexive anger takes precedence over any sort of nuance. And so Chelsea's decision to let Courtois play on for 15 minutes was decried, not just by fans but even by outraged charities.

Did Chelsea deal with the incident properly? I'm not in possession of nearly enough facts to feel comfortable one way or another in saying so. Clearly, this might have been mishandled -- if Courtois had been knocked unconscious by Sánchez's thigh, he shouldn't have been allowed to play on -- but we don't and can't know whether or not that's true. It's not difficult to imagine a situation where Dr. Carneiro's initial tests come up green but, after extended monitoring, Courtois was forced off a little later. Which, of course, would be a scenario in which Chelsea acted perfectly, especially given their diligence in following up with him this week.

That a hypothetical scenario exists is hardly proof of the club's competence (that FIFA's chief medical officer, Michel D'Hooghe, endorsed Dr. Carneiro's actions is hardly compelling, given that he has the same information restrictions as the rest of us do, although it should give pause for thought) but it's certainly evidence that the discussion that's manifested around the Courtois injury is too reductive to take seriously.

Might Chelsea have made mistakes in their handling of the goalkeeper? Certainly*. But that's not the way this has been framed. Instead, the injury is being plugged somewhat nonsensically into a broader narrative about concussion in sport. Perhaps the problem is serious enough that we should overreact, but to haul off anyone who gets hit hard would make a mockery of the game and is, I suspect, nowhere near plausible in the current climate. Besides, not every collision is a concussion, and not every head injury worth is the inevitable furore.

*And they seem to have made a PR blunder with their next-day announcement, which mentioned concussions exactly zero times and therefore left everyone completely bewildered.

Be upset when managers overrule trained medical professionals out of a sense of perverse masculinity. Hell, be upset over Courtois, if you like -- there are certainly plausible scenarios in which the club screwed this one up. But temper outrage with some awareness of the information gap you're dealing with. When someone knows something that you don't, it's not a surprise when they come to a different conclusion than yours.

That's not an appeal to authority. Medical professionals, no matter how skilled, can make errors, and Courtois could well have been misdiagnosed early on. But this is a serious topic, which calls for serious, subtle thinking. Diagnosis via television, based on the current flavour of the month, falls some way short of that bar.

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