An Epidemic Of Head Injuries

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An epidemic of head injuries?

They’re back.

Not the NBA, not the bloated college bowls, not baseball contracts best described as fractions of a billion dollars.

Concussions.

(David Stern just attempted to void this column, but agreed I could go ahead once he realized this is one of the few problems his league doesn’t have.)

In the last week, Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy was cleared to return to action just minutes after a helmet-to-helmet hit from the Steelers’ James Harrison, and the NHL’s marquee player Sidney Crosby has taken himself out of action due to a recurrence of concussion-like symptons.

The NHL’s leading point and goal scorers – Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux and Ottawa’s Milan Michalek – are both out with concussions. So are Flyers captain Chris Pronger and Carolina’s Jeff Skinner and Joni Pitkanen; Skinner, 19, won the Calder Trophy last year as the NHL rookie of the year.

Quarterbacks Kevin Kolb (Arizona) and Matt Moore (Miami) and running back Brandon Saine (Green Bay) left games on Sunday due to concussions – “head” in the league injury reports – and only Kolb has begun even limited practice activity so far this week.

Browns president Mike Holmgren explained Wednesday that the team’s medical personnel did not know the nature of the hit on McCoy because they were tending to other injured players at the time. Earlier that night, Browns tight end Ben Watson and fullback Owen Marecic suffered concussions; neither was allowed back into the game.

What in the name of Oliver Sacks is going on here?

We are not in the middle of an epidemic of concussions. We are at the dawning of an epidemic of awareness of concussions.

For as long as there has been football, there have been concussions. When both were in Congress, Lyndon Johnson dismissed Gerald Ford’s intelligence with the remark, “There’s nothing wrong with Jerry Ford except that he played football too long without a helmet.” John Madden wanted his quarterback to have one basic play so deeply ingrained that he could step into the huddle and call it even if he’d just suffered a concussion. That’s not the word they used; they’d say he got “dinged,” or “had his bell rung.”

Football and hockey players were expected to tough it out and play if they were physically able; long-term or even short-term memory was not required. Green Bay guard Jerry Kramer, in his diary of playing under Vince Lombardi, described playing with a concussion:

“I remember very little about the game. I have a vague recollection of half-time. … I couldn’t remember the plays. I mean, I could remember the real old plays, the ones we’ve used for six, seven years, but the new plays … I just couldn’t remember. I drew a complete blank. I don’t even know how long I played today. … Four or five years ago, I played most of the game with a concussion. [Teammate] Forrest Gregg told me what to do on every play. He said, ‘Block the tackle,’ or ‘Pull and block the end,’ and I actually played fairly well. I did what I was supposed to do.”

That’s not supposed to happen any more. Crosby sat out 10 months after being hit in the head in consecutive games; his return was the biggest story in hockey this season, and now the headaches are back after eight games on the ice.

On the benches and in the front offices, the headaches are just beginning. The NFL and the Players’ Association came to the Browns’ facility on Tuesday to try to understand what went wrong, why McCoy was permitted back in the game. Holmgren believed he allayed their concerns and demonstrated that this was an aberration due to the medical overload on the sidelines. Dr. Tom Waters had checked on McCoy, who was not showing any concussion symptoms, and so no standardized assessment test seemed necessary.

“He was talking, answering, knew how much time was left,” Holmgren said. It wasn’t until after the game that McCoy began feeling off, and told the team’s doctors. He was tested and treated right away, and flew home with the team. He is expected to miss this week’s game against Arizona.

Hockey’s problems go deeper. The New York Times ran a devastating series of articles on the life and death of Derek Boogaard, the enforcer (or goon) who died of a drug overdose in May. His friends and family noticed considerable personality changes in his last few years, and a post-mortem examination revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy – Alzheimer’s-like brain damage – likely the result of a career spent taking punches to the head while dishing them out.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman insists there is no reason to crack down further on fighting in the sport.

Even with greater attention paid to hits aimed high, there will still be plenty of head trauma in these sports, plenty of missed games and premature retirements as we learn more about the effects of such collisions on the human brain.

A shortened athletic career is not a tragedy. A shortened or devastated life is.

Jeff Neuman

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