Since 2007, the National Football League (NFL) has made a number of changes in policy regarding concussed players. As a result of dozens of studies, many conducted right here in West Virginia, a slew of lawsuits brought by former NFL players, and widespread pressure from the scientific community and lawmakers, the NFL has adopted stricter regulations on the return of players after a hit to the head, limited the number of full-contact practices per season, and has increased the fines for illegal helmet hits into the tens of thousands of dollars. And it’s no wonder why - in recent years, the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathology (CTE) in retired athletes has stricken fear into many who currently play contact sports, as the degenerative disease has been blamed for occurrences of depression, early onset dementia, as well as symptoms related to Parkinson’s disease. So now, after years of denying a connection between head trauma and CTE, the NFL is responding in full force.
The league has given millions of dollars to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathology at Boston University School of Medicine, one of the largest researchers of the disease. In addition to funding research, the NFL has altered it’s regulations on the number of full-contact practices per season. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) has fought to ban two-a-days, the infamous twice-per-day, full-contact practices during NFL training season, and to limit the number of practices in full pads to approximately one per week during the regular season. According to Thom Mayer, medical direct of the NFLPA, these changes will not only help reduce the number of concussive blows, but of sub-concussive blows as well, which over time can escalate into more serious problems.
What about the NCAA, responsible for organizing most of our nation’s collegiate athletics? The NCAA regulations put in place in 2010 state that member institutions must have concussion management policies in place, but does not have a unified protocol dictating what these policies should be. The lack of strict regulations has drawn criticism from some, who cite the inconsistent treatment of players who have suffered concussions. Many also posit that such flexibility leads to the exploitation of college players by their coaches, who earn salaries in the millions of dollars. While NFL players have the advantage of a union to protect them, no such provisions exist for college players, and when a coach’s multi-million dollar job is on the line, he may be inclined to push his players harder than they can withstand. And in fact, for a student athlete who relies on a sports scholarship to stay in school and secure his future, his health may seem a small price to pay. Until he loses it.
The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission (WVSSAC) has a more detailed protocol to deal with concussions in student athletes, including removing them from play until cleared by a medical professional and a system for reintegrating players after recovery. Their policy calls for “complete physical and cognitive rest” in the early stages of recovery, and later, return to play with monitoring for returning symptoms. The WVSSAC also requires that before players may be allowed to make “live contact” or participate in full-contact practices or games, a certain number of non-contact practices in pads must be held to help players adjust to temperature changes and the weight of the pads. After these requirements are met, however, there is no specific regulation on the number or frequency of full-contact practices. This is instead determined by coaches and individual schools.
Do you know the policies at your son or daughter’s school? At your institution of higher learning? One of the best things you can do is make sure that you are up to date on the appropriate regulations and be mindful of them, especially as students return to school and football season kicks off. Talk with coaches and teachers about what you can do to help ensure the safety of your child, their friends, or even yourself if you are an athlete. You should also know that this isn’t a black and white issue - there are plenty of precautions you can take to make playing a contact sport safer, besides abandoning the game, and researchers continue to look into safer gear and even possible medications to prevent and treat damage to the brain. In the mean time, use common sense, monitor injuries, and keep up to date on these important safety issues.
Stay tuned for Part II of our investigation, when we will discuss the research and technological developments regarding sports safety, as well as give advice on what to do in the case of a concussion or head injury.