Friday, August 24, 2012

The Concussion Crisis ... a year later

Last year for my annual Football Week, I wrote a story on the concussion crisis in sports. Not just in football, but in hockey as well.

Here we are, a year later, and I'd like to revisit the subject a bit, and take a look to see if things have really changed at all.

This all came to my mind a few weeks ago when I was listening to Mike and Mike on the radio. Greenie was talking about the safety of the players in the NFL, and what the league is doing to make things better.

They were talking about the kinetics of football. If you take two ordinary people, put them 30 yards apart, and have them run at each other as fast as they can, there is a certain amount of power in said collision.

If you take Big Ben and, say, DeMarcus Ware, and put them 30 yards apart, there is a much greater amount of power in said collision ... than there was with the two ordinary people.

They made mention that, although the players have gotten bigger, the field has not gotten any bigger. Personally, I think they've got it all wrong. If I am driving down a freeway in Los Angeles, having more room to speed down the freeway does not lesson my risks of having a collision. Having less room lessons my risk of having a collision, simply because I cannot go as fast. If I have less room to speed ... the power of the collision is lessened as well. Maybe the NFL should try THAT philosophy.

On Mike and Mike they were talking about the eventuality of players at all levels of the game, high school, college, and pros, having to sign a waver removing liability of injury. How many parents would be willing to do that at the high school level? I know that some parents are under the train of thought that it won't happen to their child, but is that really the smartest way to go about that?

Now you even see former NFL football players, who are now parents, expressing that they hope their sons will not play at the professional level. This includes the likes of Kurt Warner and Tom Brady. What message does this send to the rest of us, who don't have that level of experience to base our decisions on?

In a recent study, researchers at the Center for Injury Biomechanics, a joint effort of Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, estimated the number of football players in the USA: 2,000 in the NFL, 100,000 in college, 1.3 million in high school and 3.5 million in youth leagues.

AP Photo: LM Otero
The study found that while youth league players have fewer and lower-magnitude head impacts than high school and college players, high-magnitude hits do occur, and most happen in practice.
The researchers acknowledge their study involved just seven players, ages 7-8, wearing helmet sensors. But they suggest limiting hits in practice, a rule change the NFL adopted last season.

In an article that ran in the Washington Post, they explain that the changes to the NFL’s kickoff rules appear to account for a slight decline in the number of concussions reported across the league last season. This according to a consulting firm’s study of injury data provided by the NFL Players Association.

Jesse David, senior vice president at Edgeworth Economics, said the number of concussions reported on kickoffs decreased by about 43 percent from 2010 to 2011. That led to a slight drop in the overall number of reported concussions, reversing a multi year trend toward more head injuries, he said.

“Most concussions are happening somewhere else, but kickoffs was one that they felt, I presume, that it was pretty easy to target,” David said Tuesday, in an interview with The Associated Press. “And it looks like the rule did what it was supposed to do.”

The NFL moved kickoffs up five yards to the 35-yard line last season, an attempt to increase the number of touchbacks and de-emphasize kick returns — one of the most violent and chaotic plays in football.

Last year I sat down with Blues beat writer, Lou Korac, to talk a little bit about concussions and the NHL. I had a chance to talk with him again this year, to see how things are a year later. (When we sat down last year, David Perron was still recovering from his concussion, and was not yet able to practice.)

Q: Do you think the NHL has made any significant changes in making the game safer for players in regards to concussions?

A: The change in the rules structure was the first step because it has created an awareness of how to play the game safer. New concussion protocols that involve players who display symptoms being given a test by a doctor in a quiet location before returning to the ice, rather than trainers doing an exam on the bench during a game is a huge step and one that was obviously necessary. Players I have spoken with say it's made a big difference. But I still think there's a fine line between playing the game the right way and playing the game with a reckless abandonment at times with certain players. Stiffer penalties and holding true to those guidelines will only raise awareness even higher and hold players accountable for their actions to a greater degree. I do think there have been positive changes in the overall view of this subject but there is still a way to go. The NHL has bridged the gap, they haven't connected that bridge completely yet.

Q: Do you think the Blues handled David Perron's situation correctly? 

A: Absolutely. They gave him the proper time to heal and in the proper manner. There was no sense to rush him back in any fashion, and with the severity of his concussion, his youth and most importantly, his long-term well being, the Blues took no chances and allowed Perron to come back on his own terms. Only the player knows when he is 100 percent healthy and ready to return to action and Doug Armstrong continued to reiterate throughout the process that Perron would tell the team when he was ready to return and that they would put no pressure on him. This situation should be used as an example throughout the game how such incidents should be handled.

David Perron (Photo: Mark Buckner)
Q: How do you think Perron's recovery has been? Do you think his level of play is back to pre-injury status? 

A: I don't think his recovery could have gone any better. As mentioned before, the Blues and Perron handled it as best as they could and took all the necessary and proper steps. As far as level of play, from a mental standpoint, it was going to take him some time to get acclimated with the speed of the game and just being comfortable within his own skin. He needed to be hit, he needed to feel the rush of playing again and from that in itself, I don't think it took him very long to feel like himself again from a mental standpoint. From a physical standpoint, I think heading into this season is when fans will really see Perron excel. I don't think he really recovered his pre-concussion physical and endurance stature last season but has worked hard all summer long to get it back to where he feels like it will be at the level he expected.

Q: Do you think the players are learning to respect each other ... or do you think we are a long way from being at that point? Or do you think that is impossible in the "heat of the moment."

A: There are still a number of head shots that were taken throughout last season as well as hits from behind along corner boards where there was a vulnerability with those players, probably a larger number than expected. I realize hockey is a high-tempo game and a lot depends on a split-second reaction, but what really can help is the discipline committee (Brendan Shanahan and Co.) becoming more consistent in its issuance of penalties for such infractions. There have been too many inconsistencies that have a large number of players and fans confused what is right and what isn't accepted or tolerable.

So here we are, a year later, and I think both the NFL and the NHL are making great strides in making their respective games as safe as they can be, without taking away too much of the "essence" of professional sports. There are, however, more steps that need to be taken to continue to keep the players safe.

What do you think? Please leave a comment ... I'd love to hear your thoughts!


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