Column: Clemson's Lawson shouldn't play if risk too great

By PAUL NEWBERRY | January 8, 2016 | 6:25 PM EST

FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2015, file photo, Clemson's Shaq Lawson looks on from the sideline during the second half of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina, in Columbia, S.C. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says he is "very optimistic" All-American Shaq Lawson will play in the national title game against Alabama after the defensive end missed most of the Tigers' semifinal victory with a knee injury. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro, File)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Shaq Lawson desperately wants to play in the national championship game.

So much so that he's trying to ignore the pain in his left knee.

"I'm sore," Lawson said this week. "But I think I can play."

It's an admirable position for Clemson's star defensive end to take, but not necessarily a wise one.

He needs to be thinking beyond Monday night's big game against Alabama, to his career in the NFL.

Lawson has already announced he will enter the draft after this season. He's projected to be a first-round pick. Frankly, that should be his top priority, no matter how much he wants to help the Tigers win their first national championship since 1981.

While not to imply that Clemson doesn't have his best interests at heart, there is certainly the potential for a conflict of interest when it comes to any school's medical team. Lawson's college career is over after one more game. It's not unreasonable to wonder if those who are paid by the school — and beholden to coach Dabo Swinney — might have a different view of just how healthy Lawson is, compared to, say, a doctor that was hired by the player.

Danny Poole, who is Clemson's director of sports medicine, is overseeing Lawson's recuperation.

Before the Tigers arrived in Arizona on Friday, Lawson was able to practice with the team — albeit on a limited basis.

"Looked good," Swinney insisted early in the week. "He was a little sore but was able to do I think everything that Danny wanted him to. Danny was pleased. I'm very optimistic."

Lawson is one of the best defensive players in the country, a fearsome pass rusher who has played a huge part in Clemson's undefeated season. It was no surprise when he announced his junior season would be his last. An NFL career could mean millions for him and his family.

On New Year's Eve, Lawson hurt his knee in the opening minutes of the Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma. He returned to the game, but had trouble pushing off. By halftime, he was done for the night.

Lawson was limping noticeably when took part in the postgame celebration, an ice pack strapped to his knee as he walked around the edge of the stands posing for selfies with Clemson's jubilant fans.

He declared right away that his injury was nothing serious, making it clear he had every intention of playing against the Crimson Tide 11 days later.

"I could tell it's nothing serious," Lawson said that night.

It will be serious if he hurts the knee more.

His draft status would likely plummet, which would be a huge blow financially. This may sound callous, but be owes nothing to a school that has already benefited greatly from his talents.

Besides, the Clemson defense performed just fine without him. The Tigers shut down high-scoring Oklahoma in the second half, pulling away for a 37-17 victory with Austin Bryant filling in for Lawson.

Dr. Robert Marx, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, said the severity of a sprained MCL can vary widely, but that it's not unusual for someone with a low-grade injury to return to the playing field less than two weeks later.

The chance of making the injury worse is always there, of course. That's just the nature of playing a violent sport such as football, where athletes are always weighing the risk and reward of playing in pain.

"In the worst-case scenario, you can even do further damage to the knee," said Marx, who has not examined Lawson and doesn't know his specific diagnosis. "Because it's already injured, if you tear it that could cause injuries to other structures in the knee. That's a concern."

If Lawson plays on Monday night and, heaven forbid, hurts himself even worse, that doesn't necessarily mean Clemson officials were negligent in their treatment.

"There always is (risk), but it would be fairly minimal with a low-grade MCL sprain," Marx said. "If the athlete has the full ability to practice and perform all their moves — in other words, run and cut and do all the moves they need to compete — and it's a low-grade injury, generally they can play in a brace with relatively low risk. If the ligament is significantly unstable, or the athlete is not able to protect themselves and they can't really run or change directions quickly, then it's unsafe to play."

Given some of the medical horror stories to come out of college athletics, of injuries that were allegedly missed or covered up and severely impacted players for the rest of their lives, let's hope Clemson's medical staff is honest with Lawson about the severity of his injury.

More important, let's hope Lawson is honest with himself.

If there's a chance of wrecking his promising future, he needs to sit this one out.

His teammates will understand.

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org