Head Trauma: Audience Accountability in Football Concussions

Although professional sports represents a significant part of the entertainment industry, it’s universally understood that athletes never take the field without risk. Besides the expected bruises that are part of every practice, there are far more serious injuries that regularly affect athletes’ ability to perform every week. More importantly, many of these more severe injuries can have lasting effects, both physically and mentally.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee is attended to after suffering a concussion against the Washington Redskins during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010 in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sharon Ellman)

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee is attended to after suffering a concussion against the Washington Redskins during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010 in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sharon Ellman)

From a medical perspective, concussions are one of the deadliest injury types that impact football players. It’s important that our understanding of these injuries does not merely start and finish with the corporeal consequences, either. The repercussions go far beyond the physical nature of the injury. In fact, the emotional and psychological toll that concussions can have are just as important to consider.

Taking all of this into consideration, it should be far more concerning that concussions are almost commonplace in the National Football League. And because of this, it is not only the league, but fans themselves – consumers as they are – that should be held accountable.

Now, it’s imperative that one realizes that wholly preventing concussions is not a viable option. It should also not be argued that our focus rest on taking sports out of the equation. As Georgia Athletic Trainer Julianne Schmidt concludes, “making sports safer, educating people, reducing the risk, those are the answers. But physical activity is key for health, and sports are part of that” (TriaxTec).

Instead, our objective has become educating all parties involved – the coaches, the parents, and the athletes themselves. At least in doing this, we expect the extensive recovery process to be made less jarring. Through education, one can argue that the coaches and parents can be better prepared to identify symptoms and recognize the proper steps to get their players and children on the track to recovery without further aggravation of the injury. Of course, through the players themselves becoming more knowledgeable, it’s expected that they will be better able to understand the root of their symptoms and the importance of patience in approaching their own recovery.

St. Brigid's middle school varsity football players Evan Markos, right, and Michael Troutman, left,  work on a plank drill during practice using their new helmets that better protect them from concussions. , Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (Dispatch photo by Courtney Hergesheimer)

St. Brigid’s middle school varsity football players Evan Markos, right, and Michael Troutman, left, work on a plank drill during practice using their new helmets that better protect them from concussions. , Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (Dispatch photo by Courtney Hergesheimer)

 

Without that awareness of their injury, youth athletes often find their recovery situation tough to deal with – especially when it leads to missed games, time away from their friends and family, and separation from their team. “When recovering, it’s often best to stay off your phone and away from the bright lights of a computer, so that disassociation with things athletes may be accustomed to can throw off their emotions, especially in youth and adolescent athletes,” Rebecca Toback, a concussion researcher and education advocate, told me directly. At such a young age, athletes are no different than the average student or child – they have a normal schedule that they follow. When something challenges that routine, as Toback points out, it can be very emotionally disruptive: “So, it’s not only the concussion symptoms that can cause emotional/psychological problems but the consequences of recovery, too.”

However, the timing for this education is ambiguous. Is education most effective before the injury, at the moment the injury occurs, or as the player goes through the recovery process? The line is blurry. Because concussions affect people differently both in the immediate aftermath and in the future, education can only be so helpful. And yet, the public still vehemently propogates a sport that begs comparisons to ancient roman gladiator combat – and it all starts with our youth. It’s a repetitive, bottom-up social culture. The fact of the matter is that we’re preparing adolescent boys for a game where the most violent of hits corresponds to the highest potential entertainment value.

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Of course, it starts with our youth, but it culminates at the highest level of professional sport – the NFL. Since the league paid out millions to former-athletes that determined the NFL had not given them proper warning of the dangers associated with such head injuries, steps have certainly been taken to reform their treatment of head trauma suffered on the field.

Beginning in 2013, the league has created a mandated protocol for teams to follow, a set of standards that involves a press box spotter, athletic trainers on the bench, and neuro-trauma specialists both on the sidelines and in the locker rooms for testing (Pennington). However, despite the fact that the sobering lawsuit has led to significant change in concussion protocol by the league, it could be argued that this was a public relation move, not one made out of concern on the part of the NFL.

In fact, the league has been denying the legitimacy of widespread and long-term effects of concussions on its players for years. However, the veil has gradually become more transparent. An extremely recent study by PBS’ Fontline television series published test results of football players affected by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (commonly referred to as CTE), a degenerative brain disease. According to the published results, 87 out of 91 former NFL players tested positive for the disease. Furthermore, researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University have identified CTE in 96 percent of NFL players they’ve examined, as well as 79 percent of all American football players. In total, 131 out of 165 players – including those tested at the professional level, the college level, and in high school – were found to have direct evidence of CTE (Breslow).

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The entire report is perhaps the single most damning published evidence of the correlations between football and concussion injury. What’s more is that there is increasing indication that in the timespan of a season, or even a single game, a player doesn’t necessarily have to suffer a concussion to affect their brain in later life. In fact, the players – especially the offensive and defensive linemen in the trenches – are prone to suffering a multitude of subconcussive hits. Over time, these can be just as deadly and they occur far more frequently.

Being part of the entertainment industry, the NFL is a money-driven league. That means that it is the audience – both in person at stadiums and those that tune into broadcasts – are the consumers that drive the business. In turn, there needs to be personal accountability, especially since this information is becoming much more accessible to the public. If the audiences continue to accept the fact that concussions regularly occur in the sport of professional football, they accept the fact that they are in agreement with the current policies. Concussions and head trauma should not be the recipient of a blind eye, especially given the circumstances of the mounting evidence for the physical and mental consequences.

Education falls decidedly short of prevention; it’s time concern for the effects of head injury outweighed our enjoyment of football as a source of entertainment value.

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