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Tebow Concussion, NFL Dementia Study Are Teachable Moments

Concussions have been in the news a lot lately.

First was the concussion suffered by "Tonight" star, Conan O'Brien, when he slipped and hit the back of his head during a fake triathlon with "Desperate Housewives" star, Teri Hatcher.

According to news reports, O'Brien "saw stars," couldn't stand and had slurred speech. After trying to continue the taping, O'Brien ended up going to the hospital.

Next up: Tim Tebow, the star quarterback for the Florida Gators, and favorite for the Heisman Trophy. During a game against Kentucky on September 26th, Tebow took a vicious hit and was knocked unconscious. Helped to his feet, he started vomiting on the sideline, was carted off the field and admitted to a nearby hospital for observation. He has since undergone a battery of standard concussion tests, been held out of practice and told not to watch television or read, but is reportedly still experiencing headaches. No timetable has been set for his return to the practice field.

Finally, on September 30th, the New York Times reported on a telephone survey of over 1,000 former NFL players conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and commissioned by league which found, alarmingly, that former players were being diagnosed with Alzheimer's or similar memory-related diseases at a rate 19 times higher than the normal rate for men aged 30 through 49.

No laughing matter

Yet what struck me most about these stories was the degree to which the seriousness of concussions was actually downplayed.

As potentially serious as O'Brien's concussion was, the comic, perhaps predictably, turned it into a punch line, joking to the New York Daily News, that the "Last thing I remember I was enjoying the play with Mrs. Lincoln, and the next thing I knew I was in bed being served cookies and juice."

Tebow's coach, to his credit, took his star quarterback's concussion seriously - even to the point of taking some of the same post-concussion tests as Tebow in order to better understand the evolving science of concussion management.

I wish I could say the same for Tebow's teammates, several of whom were quick to minimize the injury, spouting the same macho attitude that, unfortunately, leads so many concussions to go undiagnosed and unreported at the high school and youth level. The media was "kind of blowing [the concussion] out of proportion," linebacker Ryan Stamper told the Associated Press. To them Tebow's concussion was no big deal: "[E]veryone gets concussions. Stuff like that happens," Stamper remarked.

Tim Tebow Knocked Unconcious Completely lost in the media coverage of the Tebow concussion was how the injury actually occurred. If the media reports are to believed, Tebow was knocked unconscious when his helmet struck a teammate's leg. But, as can clearly be seen in the photograph above sent to me by Bobby Hosea, a former pro football player who conducts clinics across the country on proper football tackling technique, the injury was not the result of a clean hit but from illegal helmet-to-helmet contact (a long-outlawed tackling technique called "spearing").

Medical doctors or spin doctors?

And how did the NFL's react to its own telephone survey of former players?

Before I tell you, here's some background: Up until now the league and its medical experts have consistently and steadfastly denied any link between concussions and depression, dementia and other cognitive impairment among its former players, with a member of its concussion committee even going to the point of dismissing the findings of a 2007 North Carolina peer-reviewed study suggesting such a correlation as "virtually worthless."

That same year, when it began providing financial assistance to retired players receiving care for dementia, the league said it was doing so only because the disease "affects many elderly people" not just former NFL players (a telling remark, in and of itself: Since when is a 35-year-old former NFL player considered "elderly"?). Citing the absence of reliable data, the NFL promised to conduct its own studies, including the Michigan survey.

Yet no sooner was the horse out of the barn door on the Michigan study than the NFL's spin machine went to work trying to put the genie back in the bottle (to mix metaphors).

In an e-mail to the Times, an NFL spokesman emphasized the shortcomings of the telephone survey, pointed to the existence of "thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems," and, as if by rote, spouted the true but irrelevant fact that "Memory disorders affect many people who never played football or other sports." (my emphasis).

Teachable moments

So what lessons should parents of youth and high school athletes take away from the last week about concussions in sports?

First, comedians are, well ... comedians. Even though Conan O'Brien could have viewed his concussion as a teachable moment, he can be excused when he reverted to form in playing it completely for laughs. It is the rare comic (Bill Cosby? David Letterman?) who can mix the serious and the funny.

Second, the battle between safety and the macho culture of sports rages on. On the one hand, the Tebow concussion story provided a great teachable moment because it shows sports parents, coaches, and athletic trainers how a sports concussion is properly managed: the athlete is hospitalized for observation after a prolonged loss of consciousness and vomiting on the sidelines, undergoes a battery of neuropsychological and balance tests, is held out of practice while experiencing post-concussion symptoms (e.g. headache), is told to get cognitive rest (e.g. no watching television, reading), and is not allowed to return to play until his performance on neuropsychological tests returns to his pre-injury baseline.

On other hand, as the comments from Tebow's teammates so tellingly illustrate, the deeply entrenched culture of sports, from the youth level to the pros, teaches athletes to shrug off concussions, treat them as a routine part of sport, and not to take them seriously.

Not convinced? Want more proof? Think I am engaging in hyperbole? Consider the recent story on HBO's Real Sports on high school sports concussions which featured the tragic story of Ryne Dougherty, a Montclair, New Jersey football player who died last year, likely from second impact syndrome, when he suffered a blow to the head when he returned to play despite confiding to teammates that he was still experiencing headaches from an earlier concussion. Asked if, knowing what they now knew about the dangers of playing with concussion symptoms, they would still hide their concussion symptoms in order to play, they all answered without equivocation, "Yes."

Third, once again, when the youth sports community looked to the National Football League to take the lead on concussion safety, the league let us down. Time and time again, the NFL has downplayed the long-term risks of concussions to its players. Faced with the results of a study the league had called for and sponsored raising serious concerns about the long-term health of its players and, by extension, for the long-term health of all athletes in sports such as football, lacrosse, hockey, basketball, soccer and baseball/softball, and competitive cheer, the NFL predictably backpedaled furiously.

Now it appears Congress may get into the act.  John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says his committee planned to hold hearings on concussions, hinting in a statement that they would extend beyond the NFL to college and high school sports.
To the millions of high school and college athletes and their parents, my advice is to “Stay tuned.”

Created October 8, 2009