The specter of athletic concussion dominates the news this week.
There are multiple lawsuits by retired NFL players moving through the courts alleging the NFL failed in its duty to warn and protect players of the short- and long-term damages that concussion posed to player health.
San Diego Charger offensive lineman Chris Diehl just announced his retirement after being left in a game with damage last season.
I have called this situation a "ticking time bomb" and "undiagnosed health epidemic" and have written on the dangers in the past. If I wrote this column repetitively warning about the concussion awareness, prevention and treatment it would still be merited considering the millions of concussions occurring at every level of collision-risk sports.
I reached the point in the early 90's that I could not continue to stack dollars in the bankbooks of NFL players without becoming an activist on this issue. I felt like an "enabler", facilitating the participation of clients in an activity that carried such dire risks of long-term damage. What separates this injury from any other is the fact that it impacts memory, personality, and what it means to be a sentient human being. It is one thing to realize that collision sports risk breaking down the joints of the body in a way that will make it difficult for a father to lean over at age 40 to lift his child — it is quite another not to be able to recognize that child.
Remember always that competitive athletes are in a state of denial concerning their long-term health. They are taught from Pop Warner and Little League to ignore pain and injury. They fear losing their starting position or separation from their peers.
The concept of long-term health is an abstraction and remote concern to athletes in their teens or 20s and they blot out the risk. This is why it is incumbent on parents and family to be proactive in concussion prevention and treatment. What is significant about these lawsuits is that it is the first time that retired athletes have been open in admitting to the world some of the realities of their condition.
I was desperate with multiple concussion sufferers like Troy Aikman and Steve Young in the 90's to find out the answers to "how many hits should be the trigger to retire" and "what the long-term impact of multiple head injuries?"
So I convened three "player safety" seminars in Newport Beach, with clients listening to neurologists as to the state of the art in knowledge. The brain is the last frontier of medical research and there were no firm answers. Six years ago I co-hosted a series of seminars with the Concussion Institute in Los Angeles and we had national press cover the latest neurological studies.
It was reported that after three concussions the risk of dementia, premature senility, Parkinson's and depression rises exponentially. The risk of an athlete suffering a concussion in a game playing again too quickly is that "second concussion syndrome" is at risk — slowed reflexes leading to the propensity for a much reduced blow to occasion a "perfect neurological storm."
Two in close temporal proximity multiply the impact — one plus one adds up to much more than twice the damage.
To his credit, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell convened a physicians conference and issued a "whistle blower edict" to encourage athletes to report their teammates that seemed impaired. The Berlin Wall of concussion denial fell. But with bigger, stronger, faster athletes colliding the physics of a hit changes, with more force causing worse consequences. Baseline testing, developed by Dr. Mark Lovell, which is now mandated by the NFL was a breakthrough.
Giving a cognitive test prior to an athlete going on the field of play and then being tested again after suffering a blow to the head provided the first objective way to gauge the effect of impairment. Trainers and physicians were better able to make sure that an athlete was asymptomatic at rest, on an exercise bike, and at practice before allowing them to return to play. Although the NFL receives the majority of coverage on this issue, millions of concussions occur in all collision sports at the pro, collegiate and high school level. And, that creates an especial danger for teen athletes. Their brain is still forming and the consequences of a concussion can lead to more severe consequences than to an older athlete. These teens take much longer to recover, and they are students.
There are promising supplements which have been developed, helmets are improving, and forbidding blocking and tackling with the head and neck are helpful, but nothing prevents a concussion.
It is critical that parents demand baseline testing for their teen athletes. I once proposed to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell and the CIF Medical Committee that I would be willing to fund this testing for school districts that cannot afford it. There should be a major corporation looking to safeguard our youth that can help.
Please be vigilant in protecting your children — they will not protect themselves!
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.