Awareness and prevention key to decreasing sports concussions
Published: Friday, May 4, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02
This story was produced as part of “Sustainable Stories,” a reporting project by newswriting students in the UNH Journalism Program. You can find more from the project at sustainu.org.
On a brisk, overcast afternoon in September 2010, the UNH football team lost to the Rhode Island Rams, 28-25. But it was more than a defeat for tight end Chris Jeannot.
On a play-action fake called “256 Ram,” Jeannot pretended to block, and then slipped out on a wheel route down the sideline, where he found open space.
“I went up to catch a pass in the end zone, and I got whiplash pretty bad off the ground when I came down,” said the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Jeannot. “There wasn’t much pain at all; I just got up wondering if I was okay, as far as mentally.”
The pass was ruled incomplete and the junior was left his first diagnosed concussion – an injury to the brain resulting from an impact to the head. Over the next few months, Jeannot felt the real sting of that hit: Post-Concussion syndrome, which gave him blurry vision, a lack of concentration, poor memory, and sensitivity to loud noises and bright lights.
It left him with a hard decision to make.
“I was projected to be a fifth- to seventh-round draft pick in this year’s NFL draft,” Jeannot said.
Jeannot is among the hundreds of thousands of athletes each year who have to weigh the balance between their love for a sport and their health.
According to the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Neurological Surgery, over 300,000 sports-related concussions occur annually in the United States. Jeannot was playing by the rules when he attained his concussion, but how can the concussion epidemic be resolved when it relies on athletes to play the game the right way?
Increased awareness has prompted more protective helmets, rule changes, as well as the monitoring of players before and after concussions. But Jeannot and others know that competitive pressure will not subside, and the long-term answer to concussions comes down to individual accountability.
Dr. Erik Swartz, a UNH kinesiology professor and member of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, said the key to improving safety is education.
“Educating and training to enforce proper technique begins with young players: learning how to tackle appropriately, more education on what a concussion is, what the symptoms are, and the dangers of returning to play,” Swartz said.
A concussion’s impact can be both short- and long-term. Ringing of the ears and feeling nauseated are just the start; it can lead to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and severe depression.
Time has shown that the brutal tackles a football player is glorified for can also be his downfall.
Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagles safety, committed suicide in 2006. Waters had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – a neurodegenerative disease like dementia. When Dr. Bennet Omalu of the Brain Injury Research Institute examined Waters’s brain, it looked like that of an 85-year-old, according to Omalu. Waters was 44.
Last year, Dave Duerson, a retired Chicago Bears safety, killed himself with a gunshot wound to the chest. He wanted his brain donated to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
This April, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Easterling was dealing with depression and dementia, which stemmed from his NFL career.
And this past Wednesday, May 2, Junior Seau, a former NFL linebacker, was found dead with a gunshot wound to the chest at his home in Oceanside, Calif. His death was ruled a suicide by the San Diego County Coroner, according to ABC News. It has not yet been determined if Seau’s death was a result of brain injury due to concussions.
“Back in the 1950s and 1960s when helmets changed from a soft- to hard-shell helmet, and when they started using padding and foam on the inside of the helmet, players started using their heads for spearing and tackling opponents,” Swartz said. “Those are the people who are retired and seeing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
Swartz sees a new generation of football players who are overconfident with helmet technology.
“The misconception people have no matter what is that a helmet always prevents a concussion,” he said.
Wildcats tight end Jeannot cites another problem: players are bigger and faster than ever.