In my quest for variety in these articles, I try and cover as many interesting topics as possible. One topic I have not covered is sporting injuries and I think its time to remedy that by covering the latest buzz word that ESPN has been abusing – concussions. A concussion is basically trauma to the brain resulting in some sort of loss of brain function. This can happen in almost any sport, but it tends to happen in sports where padding is involved. For example, boxing can lead to concussions because the boxers wear padded gloves. This means that fights can go on for fairly long periods of time with repeated blows to the head. If you take out the gloves, hands and/or jaws would typically be broken given the right force and the fight ends a lot quicker! In rugby there tends to be less concussions (unless the player’s head strikes the floor at high impact) from contact because the bones tend to give, so tackles aren’t made leading with the head. Football is a sport very similar to rugby, in which shoulder pads and helmets were introduced as safety measures, but have ironically become somewhat of a safety hazard much like the addition of gloves for boxers. For many years it seems that playing despite suffering a concussion was the equivalent of wearing medals for the players. This past NFL season, for example, saw Pittsburgh Steelers wide-out Hines Ward publicly denounce his quarterback Ben Rothlisberger for sitting out games because of repeat concussions. Other players have also come forward discussing how they have played many games despite receiving concussions. This looks like something that the NFL is absolutely trying to clamp down on, and they are currently conducting extensive scientific trials on helmets that players wear.
The potential long-term effects of concussions cannot be ignored. Many veteran and retired players of the NFL have stated that they suffer cognitive problems on a frequent basis. And coming away from the NFL for a moment, one only has to look as far as the “sports entertainment” of the WWE to see the pitfalls. As much as the WWE would like to forget, no one will forget the Benoit tragedy, in which professional wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his wife and child before killing himself. His autopsy revealed that repeated blows to the head throughout a twenty-year career gave him a brain that resembled that of an eighty-year old. For all the criminal problems the NFL gets associated with thanks to its players, a double homicide-suicide is something it wants to avoid as much as possible.
Currently, concussions take about three weeks to recover from, but research coming out of the University of Michigan is suggesting a very simple test that may help determine when a player can return to the field. It was devised using college wrestlers, and simply involved getting each competitor to catch a weighted cylinder before the season began. Their reaction was recorded, and any time a head injury suffered during the season, they would retake the test. On average, they noticed a 15% difference in reaction, indicating signs of cognitive difficulty. Repeating the test at later dates gives the trainers a better idea of how recovery is coming along. Obviously, the NFL franchises have access to computers and other hi-tech equipment, but the cylinder test is cheap and seemingly very effective.
But onto long term solutions which the NFL is looking into with their helmet testing; I have an idea that will sound ridiculous and look weird, but I think we will get used to it. I think the helmets should have padding…on the outside of the helmet. This should help disperse the impact a lot more than the current hard outer shell of helmets. Either that or go with an idea that Troy Aikman suggested, and that is to get rid of the helmets altogether. I am not so sure either of these would be a solution though, but then again I am not sold on there ever being a solution. Football is a violent, high-impact sport and unfortunately it comes with the territory.
Source: Kutcher JS, Eckner JT. At-risk populations in sports-related concussion. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2010 Jan-Feb;9(1):16-20.