Leigh Steinberg Blog: Athlete Concussions - Ticking Time Bomb

By Leigh Steinberg
Wes Welker
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With training camps set to open for NFL, college, and high school football players – a dark cloud hovers on the horizon. The specter of concussions is a ticking time bomb which threatens the long-term health of anyone who participates in sports that have the potential of collision. The symptoms of brain damage may not manifest for many years, making this an undiagnosed health epidemic.

Athletes are imbued with an ethos that winners play through injury and ignore pain, and that long-term health is an abstraction. They fear being left behind and will risk long-term health consequences because they are taught that the current play is their priority. They are taught these values in Pop Warner and Little League, and are surrounded by peers with the same beliefs. Therefore it is incumbent on youth sports, colleges, leagues, owners, coaches, doctors, trainers, parents, and agents to protect them against their own valor.

The brain is the last frontier of medical research. Only in the last 20 years have breakthroughs occurred that now make it clear how critical this organ is to every aspect of health. We owe a debt of gratitude to medical researchers like Dr. Robert Cantu, Dr. Julian Bailes, Dr. David Hovda, Kevin Guskiewicz, Dr. Bennet Omalu, Dr. Daniel Amen, and many others who have pioneered this understanding.

There needs to be more funding geared toward this research. Back in the 90’s, I held concussion conferences with many of these neurologists pointing out the dangers of head injuries. We issued a white paper which urged return to play standards, neurologists on the sidelines, baseline testing, and prohibition of blocking with the head and neck. In 2007, Warren Moon and I helped the Concussion Institute with a new series of conferences. Neurologists reported that three or more concussions caused an exponentially higher rate of ALS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, Dementia, and depression. Global sports advisory firm, Brewer Sports, and Biotechnology company, Amarantus, will hold their 3rd #C4CT Concussion Awareness Summit at the end of this month at the United Nations in New York focusing on these issues.

We need action on a variety of fronts:

YOUTH SPORTS – The young brain is at a heightened risk for long-term damage and takes longer to recover. What is the right age to begin playing tackle football? Athletes need to be taught not to use the head and neck in blocking and tackling. AYSO soccer that allows heading of the ball needs review. Baseline testing should be mandated for collision sports. Protective equipment standardization and replacement is a must. Many states are now limiting the contact in high school football training camp and practices. Groups like “Practice Like Pros” have pushed for safer practice regimens.

PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT – Helmetry needs innovation. CEO Jenny Morgan and Tate Technology have developed a helmet which reduces the energy impact to the head through a coil and compression system that attenuates the energy force. Impeding the force of the energy wave is vital. New head wear under the helmet like Noggin Sport’s energy dispersing gel caps can also lower the impact. We need to encourage this type of innovation.

DIAGNOSTIC DEVICES – Every time an offensive lineman hits a defensive lineman on the inception of a play, it produces a low level sub-concussive hit. These are not diagnosed currently. An offensive lineman could walk out of football with 10,000 hits – the aggregate of which is worse than three knockout blows. Better sideline diagnostic devices are needed to pick up an impaired player so he does not return to play.

HEALING THE BRAIN – Nutraceutical and pharmaceutical solutions that can, one, prophylactically protect the brain and make it less apt to be concussed; two, be applied at the time of concussion to prevent swelling and further damage; and three, heal the brain after damage has occurred are in high demand. Dr. Jacob Van Landingham and his company, Prevacus, have a promising solution for the latter.

What makes brain injuries unlike any other athletic injury? Damage to the brain impacts cognitive functioning, memory, and personality – the traits that make us human. This is a fight that will continue. This is a fight that must be won.

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