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Is playing safe? Is it safe to return to play?

Posted Jan 07 2010 12:00am

Recently, someone posted about the Maher mouth guard being effective protection against TBI in sports. I don’t know enough about it to speak with any authority, but on the other side, there’s the impact of low-level hits to consider. I believe I’ve posted about this before, but it bears repeating:

When we think about football, we worry about the dangers posed by the heat and the fury of competition. Yet the HITS data suggest that practice—the routine part of the sport—can be as dangerous as the games themselves. We also tend to focus on the dramatic helmet-to-helmet hits that signal an aggressive and reckless style of play. Those kinds of hits can be policed. But what sidelined the U.N.C. player, the first time around, was an accidental and seemingly innocuous elbow, and none of the blows he suffered that day would have been flagged by a referee as illegal. Most important, though, is what Guskiewicz found when he reviewed all the data for the lineman on that first day in training camp. He didn’t just suffer those four big blows. He was hit in the head thirty-one times that day. What seems to have caused his concussion, in other words, was his cumulative exposure. And why was the second concussion—in the game at Utah—so much more serious than the first? It’s not because that hit to the side of the head was especially dramatic; it was that it came after the 76-g blow in warmup, which, in turn, followed the concussion in August, which was itself the consequence of the thirty prior hits that day, and the hits the day before that, and the day before that, and on and on, perhaps back to his high-school playing days.

This is a crucial point. Much of the attention in the football world, in the past few years, has been on concussions—on diagnosing, managing, and preventing them—and on figuring out how many concussions a player can have before he should call it quits. But a football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too.

That’s why, Cantu says, so many of the ex-players who have been given a diagnosis of C.T.E. were linemen: line play lends itself to lots of little hits. The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage. People with C.T.E., Cantu says, “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play—repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”

Speaking from experience, I don’t see how it’s possible to discourage kids who live, breathe, eat, sleep contact sports to give them up — even if it means they add years to their lives and they avoid the dementia and cognitive problems that can appear over the long term.

I, myself, have apparently had enough concussions in my life to make my brain increasingly vulnerable to damage. The fall I had in 2004 almost cost me everything, and it was totally a fluke — or divine intervention — that spared me and my family from complete ruin.

Parents and coaches and spectators alike should give the impact of repeated subconcussive impacts a good deal of thought, and weigh the immediate benefits versus the potential long-term costs to the next generation.

Just my two cents… on top of Malcom Gladwell’s amazing piece.

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