The latest study on the connection between concussions and the devastating, degenerative brain condition known as CTE will cause a great deal of anxiety among those whose children are playing contact sports such as hockey and football. But it is nowhere near time to give up on these sports.
Boston University researchers looked at the brains of 85 repeatedly concussed former athletes and soldiers, and found serious brain damage (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in 58 of them. But it is important to remember why the researchers received these particular dead athletes and soldiers to study: They were the ones whose family members identified them as having had multiple concussions and strange, deteriorating behaviour. The researchers did not have a representative sample of athletes, even of concussed athletes.
The past 18 months has seen a welcome change in attitude toward concussions. But in the wake of a flurry of new studies, and of horrific events such as the murder-suicide involving Kansas City football player Jovan Belcher on the weekend (some of the six suicides of current and former NFL players in the past two years have been linked to head trauma), any tendency to panic should be avoided.
There is no question that repeated concussions are linked to CTE. “This study clearly shows that for some athletes and war fighters, there may be severe and devastating long-term consequences of repetitive brain trauma that has traditional been considered only mild,” Robert Cantu writes.
A key question is whether proper treatment and care of brain injuries will prevent the degenerative condition associated with concentration problems, depression, sudden rages, suicide and dementia. All leagues, from professional to children’s, need to be on guard for strong jolts to the head or neck, or to collisions that snap the head back.
Right now, teams don’t watch terribly closely for concussions, as a separate study last week by Paul Echlin of Burlington, Ont., demonstrated. (When physicians were posted to two Canadian university hockey teams, the concussion rate was vastly higher than the norm.) That wilful blindness imposes unconscionable risks on athletes, many of them children or teens.
Coaches and parents need to be prepared to stand up to the pressures of the moment for the athlete’s longer-term health. But rough, tough games still have their place, with proper attention to brain safety.