Most of the buzz about the commercials that aired during this Sunday's Super Bowl was about the Chrysler ad featuring Clint Eastwood, but, for me, the one commercial I won't forget was the 60-second spot by the N.F.L. at the end of the third quarter touting the league's progress since its founding to make the game safer.
Brilliantly directed by Peter Berg, the creator of the critically-acclaimed TV show, "Friday Night Lights", the ad was sharp and compelling. But in the end, it was, in my view, a woefully tame and romanticized depiction of the steps the league has taken to protect its current players from the dangers of head injuries in a sport that has left too many of its former players struggling in retirement with symptoms of early dementia, depression, and thoughts of suicide. In short, as someone who has been writing on concussions in sports for over a decade, I agree with Michael Hausfeld, a Washington-based attorney representing some former players in concussion-related lawsuits against the league, who told the New York Times that the commercial "obscured reality."
For years professional football swept the issue of head injuries under the rug, denying that a serious problem even existed. When I was the keynote speaker at the National Sports Concussion Summit in Marina Del Rey, California in 2008, I urged the league to do more. Here's some of what I said then:
"While parents with kids in some sports can take some comfort in knowing that the national governing body for that sport is taking steps to address the concussion issue, too many have yet to follow its lead.
And, even though only a tiny fraction of athletes playing sports at the youth and high school level will go on to play college ball and then to the pros, this country's professional leagues could and should be doing more when it comes to concussions, not just for their own athletes, but because children follow and take their cue from the examples set by their heroes in the pros.
From where I sit, as a parent and editor of a site for parents with children in sports, I believe that the NFL has thus far been a little too slow to get on the concussion bandwagon and to set the right example for the parents and children of this country. ...
Unless and until professional sports send a clear message that concussions are dangerous and need to be treated as the serious, potentially life-altering or -ending injuries they can often be, parents are going to be fighting an uphill battle in convincing their young warriors to likewise take concussions seriously.
I think it is time for the NFL, as the professional league in the sport which experiences the largest number of concussions by far, to demonstrate in a tangible way its commitment to concussion safety and education, both for its players, for the players at the youth level who emulate them, and the parents whose job it is to keep them safe. To that end, I would love for the NFL to join with MomsTeam in sponsoring a public service campaign about the dangers of concussions in sports. This need not be a campaign about the danger of football but the importance of concussion management."
It wasn't all that long afterwards that the N.F.L. did begin running spots during its games warning about the dangers of concussion. Since 2009, the league, to its credit, has also been lobbying hard in favor of laws - now in place in 31 states and the District of Columbia, and with more sure to follow this year - requiring concussion education of parents and athletes, banning same-day return-to-play after a suspected concussion, and requiring medical clearance before a concussed athlete is allowed back on the playing field, diamond or ice.
But I still think the National Football League too often follows, instead of leading on head injuries, and reacts instead of being pro-active. Only after a regular season game in which the Cleveland Browns' medical staff somehow "missed" a hit to the head of quarterback Colt McCoy (a hit that anyone watching on television could clearly see had knocked him unconscious), which allowed him to return to the game with what was later diagnosed as a concussion, did the N.F.L. place "independent" observers at each game to help detect possible concussion, and, for the playoffs, install video replay systems behind each team's bench so medical staffs could evaluate hits they might have missed (According to the Times article, the league says replay systems will probably become standard by the start of next season)
The problem is that even now, the league isn't taking advantage of cutting-edge technology that already exists to detect possible concussions, technology that doesn't rely on players reporting symptoms (that chronic under-reporting by athletes remains a serious problem is undeniable) or the ability of sideline observers to detect the often subtle physical signs of concussion (which studies show can and often do escape detection by even the most vigilant observer on the sideline or in a replay booth), but relies instead on objective, scientific data about the force, direction and magnitude of hits to the head to alert sideline personnel to those that warrant further evaluation.
Two new products now on the market - the Impact Indicator from Battle Sports Science and the Shockbox from Impakt Protective - do just that.* The Impact Indicator uses a sensor in the chinstrap of a player which flashes red to alert sideline personnel about a blow to the head of sufficient magnitude to cause possible concussion. The Shockbox is a wireless system in which a sensor in a player's helmet triggers an audible and visual, color-coded visual alert (yellow, orange, or red) on a smartphone or laptop computer if it detects a hit of sufficient force to cause a concussion so that an assessment can begin immediately on the sideline using a standard concussion assessment tool (e.g. SCAT2). In fact, New England Patriot running back, BenJarvis Green-Ellis, wore a chin strap equipped with the Impact Indicator during the Super Bowl. Thankfully, according to WHDH-TV in Boston, the indicator never flashed red.
While I congratulate the NFL on tackling the issue of its players' health and safety head on, there is no denying the fact that we are never going to see a non-violent game of football, or one from which the risk of permanent brain damage is completely eliminated (the touching pre-game feature on former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason's battle with ALS was proof enough of that).
And, as much as I would like to see the N.F.L. do even more on concussion safety, it isn't completely up to the league, or the National Hockey League, or any single organization, of course, to carry the ball on safety. All of us involved in youth sports - from parents, to coaches, from athletic trainers to school athletic directors to the athletes themselves - have a responsibility to do what we can to make contact and collision sports safer, whether it by reducing the number of hits to the head a player receives over the course of a season (such as N.F.L. and the Ivy League are doing in limiting full-contact practices, and the Sports Legacy Institute recently proposed be considered at the youth and high school level in its Hit Count program), teaching football players how to tackle without using their head (as former pro football player Bobby Hosea has long advocated), changing the rules (as the governing body for high school hockey in Minnesota did in the aftermath of the Jack Jablonski injury or USA Hockey did in banning body checks at the Pee Wee level), or giving serious consideration to whether athletes below a certain age should be playing tackle football at all (as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend).
In the end, the N.F.L.'s Super Bowl ad was on the money in at least one respect: when it comes to brain injury safety, "We're just getting started."
Questions/Comments? firstname.lastname@example.orgBrooke de Lench is the author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins) and Founder and Publisher of MomsTeam.com.
* In the interest of full disclosure, both are MomsTeam sponsors. Feb 2012