Concussion problem calls for introspection and compassion

Football is a national tradition – and a dangerous one at that.

Super Bowl Sunday serves as a reminder of Americans’ trouble reconciling the good and bad behind their favorite sport.

By now, we all generally know football’s dangers, such as the long-term effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a disease caused by recurring head injuries, from which 110 of 111 late NFL players – examined by neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee – were revealed to have suffered.

Traumatic brain injuries can also affect one’s mental health, long after initial impact. For two thirds of all who experience a TBI, depression occurs within seven years, according to a report by the University of Washington.

Despite the consequences, 111.3 million of us watched the game on Feb. 4 and come fall, we’ll still file happily into Hard Rock Stadium, donning green-and-orange regalia.

That doesn’t necessarily make us callous, though. Our country’s culture has long praised the pigskin, and to expect families rooted in the spectating tradition to drop the habit altogether would be naive. Fans, just like players, can watch the sport while still criticizing its weaker attributes; they can love football while working to help it evolve.

Shaking football’s legacy (or our adoration of it) won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, though, we can try to change the way we watch, play and think about America’s favorite game.

Leading the charge are scientists dedicated to making the game safer. No measure can completely tame football, of course, since the very nature of the sport making it fast and contact-driven.

But it’s worth noting (and following) the efforts of groups like the UHealth Concussion Program, a clinic that searches for innovative, safety-minded solutions in the form of goggles that can diagnose concussions, for example, and cannabinoids, which might be able to help treat them.

As far as preventing concussions from occurring altogether, helmet changes and play regulations serve, at the very least, as acknowledgements of a problem – though they, too, can only do so much. When concussions do occur, the tell-tale symptoms (from headache to nausea to disorientation) don’t always show up right away, and even if they do, an athlete may simply brush them off in order to keep playing.

One 2014 study, conducted by Harvard and Boston University researchers, found that for every diagnosed concussion among college players, there are 26 that go unreported. While players are not allowed to return to play with a concussion, the “push-through-it” mentality (a prevalent attitude among all kinds of athletes) can kick in and encourage them to keep quiet – and keep playing.

But no matter how often a coach may tell his team to “tough it out,” he never wants a player to walk away with an irreversible injury. The concussion problem is not rooted in malice but in the identity and, for pros, livelihood that football provides. Expecting a player to play it extra-safe on the field is not always feasible – especially when they depend so heavily on football for their lives and careers, even in light of the data that highlights the sport’s potential to harm.

At the college level specifically, the prospect of heading to class following a concussion – diagnosed or not – can be troubling, too, especially since the expectations (like staring at a computer screen to type up assignments) are not always conducive to recovery.

Of course, the average sports fan might find it difficult to do something about these realities. But you don’t need to be a scientist or league executive to change the way concussions are approached in the American mainstream. It starts with you.

Act with compassion when it comes to players, including your peers at the collegiate level. Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski took his own life in January. His death highlighted the need for us to rethink our approach to student athletes, seeing them as people first, and looking past their accomplishments on the field.

Being a student athlete can already be a thankless job, but we can make it at least a little more worthwhile by sharing our time, care and concern for those who take on the task. Having solid mental health counseling resources available to these students who are under immense pressure to achieve in front of a huge audience is a must.

On the professional level, it might seem easy to write off players’ concerns about safety by pointing to their salary, as if to say, “Stop complaining. You chose this and are making a lot of money doing it.” But you can’t put a price on life. Players, however well-paid they may be, deserve the same sympathy and consideration as do those of any other profession. And until recently, there was no definitive tie between what happens on the field and what happens in the long-run, but the science is showing stronger links everyday.

Besides, it’s not a phrase we would use to assuage doctors pushing for safer, cleaner tools, so why use it here? Compensation does not negate the need for a fair deal, and healthy working conditions matter regardless who signs your paycheck.

Entire lives have been built around this sport. Many of the most well-known players grew up before football’s concussion threat was common knowledge and decided to play for a multitude of reasons: passion, the chance to go to college and earn a living. How can we expect them to stop altogether? We owe it to these players not to erase their efforts but to reward them, at the very least, with our open ears and a push for policies that put the athlete’s holistic health first.

Many players – including former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw – have said that they would not let their own children play football because of the health concerns. Parents across the country seem to be following suit: In 2015, flag (no-tackle) football enrollment of kids aged 6 to 14 increased by 8.7 percent, according to a survey by Reuters.

Maybe future generations will continue to embrace hybrid, lower-contact sports. But until they do, football players deserve to be heard, cared for and taken seriously, inside and outside of the sports community.

This past September for USA Today, Bears Hall-of-Famer Dick Butkus wrote, “the benefits of football in transforming energetic youth into productive citizens cannot be overlooked.” He was right. Football can change lives, serve as a force of social change and transcend the TV screen in bigger ways than ever before.

Fortunately, as the sport evolves, its power to do good can remain.

Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board.

Featured photo courtesy pixabay user Capri23auto.