Concussions and the Future of Football

Hello, Loyal Readers,

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism hit the shelves on Tuesday, November 7, and the response so far has been universally positive. Here’s a review from The National Post, one of Canada’s biggest papers, which said, “Bacon applies something like a play-by-play strategy to his non-fiction that makes it nearly bingeable. The Great Halifax Explosion is… a gripping narrative… active and well-paced. Bacon’s riveting account, [is] a pleasure to read.”

And here’s an interview with Al Kresta on Ave Maria Radio, based in Ann Arbor, which goes out to almost a million people through 380 stations.

I’m hitting the road for the book tour very soon, from San Diego to Seattle, Philly to Boston, and a lot of spots in-between. My calendar can be found here, with event details.

Thanks for your support! Now, back to our show.

-John

To listen to the commentary, click the “play” button.

Americans have become obsessed with concussions, and with good reason.  But for medical professionals, it’s a double-edged sword: people are interested, but they also have more misinformation.

For example, concussions last only a week or two, while smaller, more frequent hits can result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE – but the two are often lumped together.

I learned about all kinds of brain injuries when I coauthored a book with ESPN’s John Saunders. One day he stood up, blacked out, and hit his head on a tile floor, which gave him a serious brain injury, and all that goes with it. He had a splitting headache for nine months, he spent six weeks in a hospital re-learning how to regain the most basic skills, and restoring something called “impulse control.”

In one test, John had to stick ten pegs into ten holes. If you were working slowly and carefully, you’d need about 20 seconds. It took Saunders six minutes. His IQ had dropped from a 154 to 102.

In another test, Saunders was supposed to push a button whenever he saw the letter ‘A’ pop up on the screen. He was mildly insulted by the silliness of this exercise, until he started the test. He quickly realized he could not stop himself from pushing the button whenever any letter appeared, even though he knew he was not supposed to.

This lack of “impulse control” can create serious problems in the real world, where victims often end up making horrible decisions. The governors that regulate such behavior are gone. They don’t have any brakes. It can even lead to suicide, which many doctors believe is often an impulsive decision.

John recovered, regaining what he’d lost. Even his headache went away. But not everyone is so lucky.

The damage that concussions, CTE, and closed head injuries can do hasn’t changed, but our focus on them has, especially after two former NFL players committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest to preserve their brains for study. In both cases, scientists discovered severe CTE.

As tragic as that is, it doesn’t mean a kid playing football today is doomed to a similar fate. For starters, the current generation of former players in their 50s and 60s will likely be the most damaged we ever see. They played through two-a-day practices, often on astroturf fields, in an era when we called concussions “getting your bell rung,” and laughed them off.

But that’s the generation we see aging now, so it’s hard to believe things will be better for the next one. But they will be, because most of those conditions have been removed, and they’ve added better equipment, better rules, and better medical care to make everyone safer. They can make it safer still by eliminating tackling for grade school players, reducing it in practices for high school, college, and pro players, and monitoring players more closely.

One of the best monitors out there is Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, an international expert on sports neurology. He notes that NFL players as a group do NOT die sooner than others, but actually live longer, and the risk of concussions in football is not much greater than it is in soccer.

But the question is not only whether football is safe enough to play. It’s whether parents think it’s safe. Because even if football becomes safer than checkers, if parents don’t believe it, they won’t let their kids play. And once a critical mass of kids decide to play something else, those who want to play won’t be able to find any teams.

Football has two problems: the risk of brain injury, and the perception of that risk. The sport is finally doing a very good job on the first problem – but it’s still doing a horrible job on the second.

 

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2 comments Leave a comment  

  • Liza Morrison November 17, 2017 at 10:39 am

    NHL players with CTE are ill served by their governing bodies.

    Reply
  • Phil Hemenway November 17, 2017 at 11:24 am

    This is true for football and also for other contact sports like ice hockey, lacrosse, martial arts, soccer, and many others. Additionally, non contact sports like alpine skiing, cycling, automobile racing and the like offer the same risks or more. Hopefully, awareness and more comprehensive protection for participants will become more common. (ex: masks/mouth guards for hockey players). As an example, helmets for recreational skiing and cycling were unknown 15 years ago, now almost everyone wears a helmet (or should) on the slopes/road. A positive step for all. Thanks for keeping this in front of the public.

    Reply

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