Sports Athletes: It's About Protecting the Head and Heart on the Playing Field

Jed Hughes@JedhugheskfCorrespondent IApril 4, 2012

Michael Vick suffered a concussion in a Week 10 loss to the Cowboys. Since, backup Nick Foles has taken over quarterback duties.
Michael Vick suffered a concussion in a Week 10 loss to the Cowboys. Since, backup Nick Foles has taken over quarterback duties.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

We have so many clichés in sports about head and heart:

Get your head in the game…  Keep your head up…  You Gotta Have Heart…  They played with a lot of heart today…

However, the importance of athletes’ heads and hearts can’t be underestimated, both figuratively and literally.

Head Injuries

An often overlooked aspect in sports has been the long-term impact head injuries take on an athlete’s life.  There is no shortage of notable athletes who were forced into early retirement due to recurrent concussions.  Many of them face long-term physical difficulties and shorter life expectancies. 

Head injuries are devastating.  John Mackey, a top tight end for the Colts and the first president of the NFL Players Association after the NFL-AFL merger, suffered from frontal temporal dementia, and spent the conclusion of his life in an assisted living facility.  Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon suffers from short-term memory loss and believes that his problems are related to head injuries he sustained during his career.  The NFL is currently facing multimillion dollar lawsuits filed by players who claim head trauma caused long-term damage.

Hockey players suffer more than their fair share of head trauma.  Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the marquee player of the NHL, has battled post-concussion syndrome for much of the past two years.  After a brief return in December, he sat out until March and is now playing again. There is a real  possibility that his next head injury could end his career and possibly cause permanent damage. 

LAS VEGAS - MAY 01:  Boxing legend Muhammad Ali attends the Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Shane Mosley welterweight fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 1, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Post-concussion syndrome forced Pat LaFontaine, one of the greatest American-born players, to abruptly end his Hall of Fame career.  He is now an advocate for the NHL Players Association.  Eric Lindros, the first pick overall in 1992, famously suffered multiple head injuries that also resulted in an early retirement.

Two of the most famous athletes in American history may be able to pinpoint their physical declines to repeated head injuries.  Muhammad Ali’s Parkinson’s disease is very likely a result of too many blows to the head during his boxing career.  A 2010 report by CNN suggested that New York Yankee legend Lou Gehrig may have been fallen victim to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) due to head injuries he incurred during a career in an era when players did not use batting helmets. 

Understanding how head injuries impact athletes' long-term health is essential.  Recently, LeBron James said he was “too tough to get a concussion.”   This kind of attitude is dangerous.  We simply don't know the repercussions of head injuries sustained by adults and children who play sports.  It is best to err on the side of caution when returning from concussions.

Heart Injuries

Generally, athletes are in remarkable physical shape and look and feel indestructible.  Yet, there have been so many tragic examples of young athletes suffering from heart attacks and dying of heat stroke after being pushed too hard. 

Fabrice Muamba in white shirt
Fabrice Muamba in white shirtRoss Kinnaird/Getty Images

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, dozens of football players have died from heatstroke since the mid 1990s.  More than 30 of them were high school athletes.  The old school mentality of "suck it up, you are fine," can be dangerous, especially for student athletes.

Last month, 23-year-old Fabrice Muamba of English Premier League’s Bolton FC went into cardiac arrest during the first half of a soccer match against Tottenham FC.  The young soccer star is lucky to have survived.  Sevilla's Antonio Puerta, who died after suffering a heart attack during a Spanish League match in 2007, and Cameroon soccer star Marc-Vivien Foe, who died while playing in a match against Colombia in 2003, were not as fortunate. 

In the U.S., Emily Adamczak, a high school freshman at Akron Central, died from cardiac arrest on the soccer field. Nearly five minutes had passed before she was given CPR by a bystander. A quicker response might have saved her.

Perhaps the most famous case of heart failure occurred when Reggie Lewis of the Boston Celtics dropped dead on the court during an offseason practice.  He was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a fairly common heart condition.

Sports organizations have a responsibility to safeguard the health of their players.  Chief among them are head and heart injuries.  Unlike sprains and breaks, we cannot always see what has happened, which makes the injuries that much more dangerous.  With state of the art technology and superlative health services at our fingertips, isn’t it time we implement a system to prevent tragedies through a process of screening athletes' health and assuring the best health assistance is available before taking the field?

Any athlete—amateur or professional—should have regular physicals that include head and heart tests.

Having been a coach for a long time, I've seen the effects of head injuries on players who returned to action to quickly.  As a father whose son has experienced a serious concussion, I am an advocate of baseline testing followed by a procedure that determines when it is safe to return to action.  

Parents must be aware of the effects of head trauma and must take advantage of the latest advances in testing for concussions.  They also must heed the advice of experts before allowing their children to compete again.  When it comes to brain injuries, it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice.  Among his high-profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.  Earlier in his career, Mr. Hughes coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA).  Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.


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