Friday, May 11, 2012

The NFL and the Concussion Issue

The NFL has made dramatic strides in recent years in acknowledging and beginning to address the concussion issue among current and former players.  When it comes to statistics, the concussion issue is one of the hardest to measure because for decades, and even today, players, coaches and trainers have not drawn a distinction between when a player gets “his bell rung” and a true brain injury that requires medical attention.

This started to change in recent years when UPMC doctor Michael “Micky” Collins launched the UPMC Sports Concussion Program, where he is executive director.  Based on what I’ve read, his organization has been instrumental in helping pro and amateur athletic governing bodies assess the depth and reach of the issue, and perhaps most importantly, how to handle it.

I have some personal experience with this.  My older son suffered a concussion during a football practice in his sophomore year of high school.  We took him to UPMC and he was entered into a study Dr. Collins was conducting to collect and analyze concussion data.  As part of the study, participants had to use a computerized testing program that seemed designed to assess specific cognitive abilities and use that data for medical diagnosis and treatment.

As part of the study, my son had to get tested regularly, even when he was symptom-free over the course of his playing career.  That way, the researchers had benchmarks for comparison when subjects were “normal” and when they were concussed.   As parents, we found the process reassuring and positive all the way through.  Our son had a second concussion at the end of his senior season and we met with Dr. Collins on that.  Fortunately, both situations were mild when compared to the stories we read about involving such superstar athletes as Sidney Crosby.

After that and to this day, our younger son gets tested periodically to maintain his benchmarks for as long as he plays football, even though he is not part of a study. 

I know the NFL is paying close attention to this issue, but I don’t know if the NFL does it this way with every player, or whether such benchmark testing is mandatory.  I don’t know if the teams leave the decision to play up to the individual athlete or if a doctor or trainer is charged with signing off with a medical release before the player is allowed back on the field. 

From a PR standpoint, the NFL and other sports leagues need to have an aggressive process for diagnosing, treating and clearing athletes before they are allowed to play, and the health of the athlete must come before the athlete’s desire to get back on the field, regardless of what’s at stake on the competitive front. 

I can only imagine the pressure that’s put on professional coaches, players, trainers and doctors to clear athletes who may not be ready to perform.   But I do believe that an uncompromising process for handling concussions will in the long run protect the reputation of the game and its prospects for continued success.

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