NCAA, NFL Must Wake Up When It Comes to Concussions

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NCAA, NFL Must Wake Up When It Comes to Concussions
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The recent video of Cal running back Jahvid Best’s horrific fall into the end zone against Oregon State has drawn over 90,000 views on Youtube.com. If you’re a college football fan and haven’t seen it yet, at the very least you’ve heard about it.

The same goes for Florida quarterback Tim Tebow’s head brutally snapping forward against the leg of his teammate during a sack by a Kentucky defensive lineman. Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford’s attempted tackle, and fall to the turf against Texas Tech was easier to watch, but still left him forgetting plays on his offense’s next drive.

All diagnoses with differing degrees of concussion, these incidents raise the question in terms of diagnosing, and properly treating, brain trauma in football: What more can the leagues, doctors, coaches, and even players do to prevent further injury to athletes, and help eliminate potential long-term problems associated with concussions?

The NCAA has strict guidelines in place when dealing with concussed players, but these guidelines may not be strict enough, as witnessed with Cal Head Coach Jeff Tedford’s decision to play Best a week after sustaining a mild concussion in a game against Arizona State.

By no means should blame be cast solely on Tedford for starting Best against Oregon State. Best, who has carried the entire Cal team on his shoulders throughout his sophomore and junior seasons with the Bears, was a Heisman hopeful after punishing opposing teams on the ground, and as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Unquestionably Tedford’s most potent weapon, Best described the mild concussion as little more than a headache during the Arizona State game, causing team doctors to overlook the injury until properly diagnosing it two days later.

According to ESPN.com, “Many top college football programs [including Cal, Florida and Oklahoma] have begun baseline testing, including obtaining balance and equilibrium standards [before the season], to help diagnose the severity of concussions and determine when it's safe for players to return.”

“In baseline testing, before suffering a concussion, an athlete takes a 20-minute computerized test that measures brain processing, speed, memory and visual motor skills to establish baseline data. After a concussion, the athlete is retested and the results are compared to help determine his or her status.”

Tedford told ESPN that Best was held out of practice until doctors cleared him for play on Thursday. Would you sit your team’s most potent weapon, your key to national exposure, or a kid with a chance at a Heisman trophy, if he said he had a headache and doctors following protocol said he could play?

A similar question presents itself with Florida Head Coach Urban Meyer’s decision to leave Tebow in the Kentucky game when leading 31-7 near the end of the third quarter. But Tebow, along with Best, was fighting for more than just victories. Both of their coaches wanted their players at the top of the NCAA football universe, and sitting quarters, or games weren’t going to help their causes.

Sadly, the major issue both coaches ultimately face stems from misinformation when it comes to head trauma recovery time, and the potential for far more dangerous health implications if even mild concussions are mistreated, or disregarded.

Four days after Tebow’s concussion Meyer went so far as to say in a SEC teleconference that his star quarterback “looked terrific” the night before. “It’s the best I’ve seen him look.”

Also, in response to the baseline testing Tebow had undergone the previous day, Meyer commented, “I always hear about the baseline. It's interesting how that's evolved over the years ... You put your feet together, you hold your hands on your hips, you raise on one foot, those kind of things.”

To any fan listening to Meyer, Tebow sounds just fine. But to any doctor familiar with concussions, a mental health assessment is far more complicated than how a player looks, or whether he can hold his hands on his hips.

Between 1999 and 2001, the NCCA commissioned a study led by Dr. Kevin M. Guskiewicz at the University of North Carolina to analyze and interpret concussion data of 300,000 incidents from across all levels of college football with an objective “to estimate the incidence of concussion and time to recovery after concussion in collegiate football players.”

Published in 2003, the study found a 7-10 day period of increased susceptibility to recurrent injury after an initial concussion. More alarmingly, the study concluded that “a history of previous concussions may be associated with an increased risk of future concussive injuries and that these previous concussions may be associated with slower recovery of neurological function following subsequent concussions.” Athletes who had three, or more concussions were also observed as being three times more likely to sustain future concussions.

These findings support author Polly Shulman’s piece titled Blowing the Whistle on Concussions, where Shulman discovered that “a second blow before a concussion is fully healed has a far greater chance of imposing more serious, long-lasting harm.”

So, why did NCAA policy even allow Tedford to return Best to practice, or even a game for that matter, the following week, when NCAA-funded studies suggest otherwise? And why is Meyer telling the media that Tebow looked great just days into his necessary recovery?

With an estimated 1500 annual concussions in college football, including the three most recent involving Heisman hopefuls, the NCAA and its physicians must drastically reassess the guidelines they have in place, and add more precautions in the when dealing with head trauma, and recovery time. Why conduct a study if you aren’t going to follow up on the results?

The ignorance regarding concussive injuries, and the incompetence when dealing with them, doesn’t stop at football’s collegiate level, though.

As witnessed during last month’s presentation to a House Judiciary Committee hearing on football head injuries, the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell seem to care even less about the mental health of their players off the field.

In a move similar to Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig’s profitable neglect of steroid use in baseball in the late 1990s, Goodell refused to acknowledge any relationship between head injuries suffered on the field, and brain disorders later in a player’s life—a stance contradictory to studies carried out by the NCAA, high school organizations across the country, and doctors in the NFL’s concussion committee who were mysteriously unavailable to stand as witnesses during the hearing.

As reported by ESPN.com, a television interview clip by one such absent committee member, Dr. Ira Casson, chairman of the NFL committee on concussions, was presented by Representative Linda Sanchez. The clip showed Casson denying any evidence to link numerous head injuries in former NFL players with brain disorders.

Fittingly, Sanchez remarked that Casson’s denial reminded her of certain tobacco companies in the 1990s denying any links between smoking and negative health effects.

Other House representatives oppose the involvement of Congress in football. Representative Ted Poe of Texas remarked “we’d all be playing touch football” if Congress were to intervene in concussive precautions.

Baseless and ignorant comments like Poe’s are what allow players’ lives to be put in jeopardy in the first place.

There’s a reason why sports fans witness ex-baseball players throwing out first pitches well into their 70s while elderly football players are rarely seen on the sidelines, remaining brushed aside by the media.

Baseball is, mostly, a noncontact sport. Head injuries remain an anomaly—the result of a freak collision with the outfield fence or a 100 mph fastball far too high, and inside.

Football, on the other hand, thrives on contact. Fans feed off of head-jarring hits, and pay the big bucks, or visit the free websites, to see them. Football commissioners, officials, and owners understand this—they’re the ones reaping the benefits, and downplaying the harmful long-term side-effects of head trauma, leaving players of all levels even more vulnerable to the understatement of concussions. So, as baseball players retire to a life of golf and eventual arthritis, many elderly ex-football stars sit in wheel chairs on medications for depression, others institutionalized, battling dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Former NFL fullback Merril Hodge was present at the House hearings, and testified about his series of concussions that ended his career. He claimed to have been cleared to play just five days after his first concussion, and hadn’t even seen a neurological doctor. Hodge also testified that “what happened to me would not happen in the National Football League today.”

Maybe, Merril, but we’ve seen that’s definitely not true in the NCAA. Collegiate programs don’t have the funding professional ones do, but it’s not like either can’t afford more precautions.

With all of the money at the NFL’s disposal, you would think they’d at least try something to keep their players on the field longer, and reward them in retirement for the money they earned the league. The evidence to the contrary suggests otherwise.

In May 2007, the New York Times published a study by the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, which found a strong relationship between the rate of diagnosed clinical depression in retired NFL players, and the concussions they sustained.

The Times also reported ex-Patriot linebacker Ted Johnson revealing his neurological doctor citing a link between Johnson’s depression, and cognitive decline to his concussions sustained on the field—the most damaging of which coming after Head Coach Bill Belichick persuaded him to play contrary to the advice of team physicians.

In November 2006, ex-Eagles safety Andre Waters committed suicide, most likely attributed to depression. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in June of 2007, “Waters' brain tissue was sent to former Allegheny County pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who in January, similar to his earlier forensic studies on the late Steelers Mike Webster and Terry Long, found concussed brains showing signs of dementia that occurs ‘in people in their 80s and 90s.’ Waters was 44, Long 45, and Webster 50.

“‘This is direct tissue evidence, there's no speculation or inference,’ said Omalu, an adjunct Pitt professor who has written a book on the subject. ‘It's mounting scientific evidence.’”

There are a plethora of other concussion studies published corroborating these findings on the Internet, in medical journals, you name it. Read them. Although, I guarantee you they’ve been viewed less than the Youtube.com video clips of Best, and Tebow.

The ties between head trauma and mental health problems later in life are far too strong too simply dismiss them. Fans must demand the NFL and the NCAA end their denial, and actually do something to help the players we all love watching before they too are soon swept under the red, white and blue rug.

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