Concussions and Football (And Other Sports)

Filed in National, Sports by on January 28, 2013

When I was growing up concussions were simply a hard hit in the head that took longer to recover from.  As I entered high school, I remember concussions being discussed more often – usually with the warning of not letting the injured person fall to sleep – and not much beyond that.

Today, the number of kids I know diagnosed with a concussion has grown to quite a large number and the extensive treatment involved (beyond monitoring/testing by a doctor) has moved far beyond the “sit down for a minute, catch your breath and don’t go to sleep” instructions of the past.  Several teens at my daughter’s high school have concussions.  These kids are banned from testing, watching documentaries, gym, sports, etc..  Parents dealing with their child’s concussions today are finding out that it is a long, life altering process.  So I’m glad high schools are taking concussions very seriously and that we have moved beyond the “shake it off” advice of the past.

Which brings us to a new study and the thoughts of Ta-Nehisi Coates.  We’ll begin with the study:

Brain scans performed on five former NFL players revealed images of the protein that causes football-related brain damage — the first time researchers have identified signs of the crippling disease in living players.

Researchers who conducted the pilot study at UCLA described the findings as a significant step toward being able to diagnose the disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, in living patients.

“I’ve been saying that identifying CTE in a living person is the Holy Grail for this disease and for us to be able make advances in treatment,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, co-director of NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill., and one of the study’s co-authors. “It’s not definitive and there’s a lot we still need to discover to help these people, but it’s very compelling. It’s a new discovery.”

Dozens of former players — including 34 who played in the NFL — have been diagnosed with CTE, a neurodegenerative disease linked to dementia, memory loss and depression. The disease, which researchers say is triggered by repeated head trauma, can be confirmed only by examining the brain after death. CTE was discovered earlier this month in the brain of former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide last May by shooting himself in the chest.

[...]

The study could open up new areas for CTE research — and provide additional fuel for the controversy surrounding it. The ability to diagnose CTE in living patients would raise thorny questions about the need for mandatory testing and whether players at all levels can be forced to find out if they are vulnerable to a devastating disease.

The study was funded by a $100,000 grant from the Brain Injury Research Institute, a non-profit organization founded by Bailes, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a pathologist who in 2005 identified the first case of CTE in a former NFL player, and Bob Fitzsimmons, a Wheeling, W.Va., attorney who represented late Steelers center Mike Webster, the first NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE.

Omalu, now chief medical examiner for San Joaquin (Calif.) County, is a co-author on the study.

The NFL once attacked Bailes’ and Omalu’s research and denied the link between football and CTE. The league later reversed its position and acknowledged a scientific connection between football and long-term brain damage.

The NFL, in the past, has been slow on addressing CTE and injuries.  Please read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ post entitled:
The NFL’s Response to Brain Trauma: A Brief History.  It’s quite thorough and the NFL doesn’t come out looking so good.  My guess is that this study will have the NFL beginning to change its ways.  And while I’m not sure they’ll become an active participant in the research, I hope they’ll stop being an obstacle.  Go read this history.  It isn’t pretty.

Which brings us to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ thoughts on the future of football:

I don’t know if this will change anything, right now. But telling a player “You have CTE” is a lot different than “You stand some chance of developing it.”

[...]

I don’t know what the adults will do. But you tell a parent that their kid has a five percent chance of developing crippling brain damage through playing a sport, and you will see the end of Pop Warner and probably the end of high school football. Colleges would likely follow. (How common are college boxing teams these days?)

After that, I don’t know how pro football can stand for long.

I agree – especially when it comes to middle/upper middle class parents, most of whom wouldn’t take the chance.  They wouldn’t have to since they have the luxury of other options.  And I agree with Ta-Nehisi that pro football may not stand for long if parents cut the supply chain.  BTW, this won’t only cause changes in football.  Other sports will come under scrutiny.  (Disclaimer:  My daughter plays high school sports and loves them.  I am not bashing sports)

The most obvious example we have of how a sport can change due to injuries is boxing.  Boxing still exists, but not like it did in the past.  Now I’m not a sport’s expert, but I remember my uncles and grandfather waxing lyrical on boxing greats from the past.  Even I knew about Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Frazier.  I couldn’t name a professional boxer today.  My point is not that I’m sports illiterate (I am) – My point is that boxing, which use to permeate popular culture, has vanished from every day notice.

I’m not sure what the answer is.  Better equipment?  Painful fines (and by painful, I mean quality of life changing)?  Who knows?  I don’t, but if this CTE research is expanded and the results back up what the initial results show then football (and other sports) may have to change their ways.

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A stay-at-home mom with an obsession for National politics.

Comments (3)

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  1. Another Mike says:

    I played football as a kid but stopped after 8th grade, but if I had boys I’m not sure I would let them play now. Youth football is not drawing participants in the same numbers it did in the past. It will be interesting to see what happens with football on all levels in the next 20-25 years.

    By the way, the youth sport with the second-highest rate of concussions after football: girls soccer. This, however, has not been the subject of many discussions. One easy way to reduce brain injuries in soccer is to require all players to wear padded headbands. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/16/girls-soccer-is-sport-wit_n_1522729.html, includes links to other resources)

    I love sports and the opportunities they give to young people for physical fitness, camaraderie, education (in the form of scholarships), leadership, etc. I’d hate to see these opportunities lost. You’ll never remove all the risk from sports, but just as air bags and seatbelts have made driving a car safer, there are ways to better protect young athletes.

  2. cassandra_m says:

    Not to get too far away from the topic, but I was stunned this fall to hear that was a big cause of catastrophic injuries. According to this, only 4% are head injuries (most are sprains), but still. I think I was surprised that there isn’t more effort to make this safer.

  3. Joanne Christian says:

    I’m coming back to this, because I’m still mourning Sally Starr’s death w/ a few ol’ kids from the neighbor hood on the phone, but–my daughter plays lacrosse, and no helmet required–but boys do. It’s changing or scheduled to change or something though.