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Like most controversial proposals, there’s a valid driving force behind the initiative to reduce the number of brain injuries to athletes. Could we save, extend, and improve lives just by making small sacrifices? As we continue to learn more about the links between athletes and devastating brain injuries, we’re sure to hear people on both sides of the debate up in arms over whether or not to ban sports that create a brain injury risk.
“Advances in modern neuroscience mean scientists know more than ever about chronic brain damage and the long-term trauma that can result from frequent knocks to the head,” reported. “Partly due to this new understanding, now is a time of intense sensitivity about and scrutiny of brain damage in sport.”
On one side, we’ve got the safety-conscious crowd with a deeply emotional appeal, sharing stories of loved ones disabled or even killed by traumatic brain injuries, robbed of the full, active lives that they should still be enjoying today. It’s a persuasive argument. On the other hand, many question whether sacrificing something as wholesome, profitable, and deeply ingrained in our culture as sports in order to avoid all possible risks is really any way to go through life.
What it comes down to is a compelling question that’s much more complex than it seems: should we ban sports in the name of safety?
No one denies that people get hurt while boxing. The concern isn’t whether boxing can lead to brain injury – it can – but instead, whether knowing that fact compels us to ban the sport for safety reasons. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
When you think about sports injuries – specifically in youth sports – you may think first of seemingly harmless wounds, like the kind of bruises or scratches that a coach instructs players to just “walk off.” Even in more serious cases, like sprained muscles, pulled tendons, and broken bones, healing typically occurs. In many such instances, time and proper medical care can make the injured body part nearly as good as new.
When we talk about brain damage, we are talking about one of the most severe types of injuries a person can sustain, with some of the most lasting and far-reaching impacts. When the brain is damaged, entire regions of the body can experience pain, tingling, weakness, or even paralysis. Brain injuries affect the way you move, feel, think, behave, remember, speak – virtually every physical and cognitive process imaginable. There is no way to overstate the significance of brain injury – and that’s why there is really no such thing as “just” a concussion.
“There might not be visible blood or an obvious head wound after trauma. Many people do not lose consciousness,” reported The Commercial Appeal News. “Sometimes, what you can’t see after hitting your head is what is most serious. A clot, brain swelling, and internal bleeding can lead to a stroke or neurological damage.”
In March 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported some alarming news. “Several new brain studies all point in the same direction: head trauma is a more serious injury than has been realized… And it now appears that even a single concussion can cause lasting damage to the brain in some people.” The truth is that, the complex human brain is still mysterious to even modern medical practitioners and researchers. Brain injuries impact different people in different ways, depending at least in part on where in the brain the injury occurred. Future research may provide even more clues into the extent of damage even a single, mild brain injury can cause.
Brain damage can be serious regardless of whether it stems from open head injuries, in which a visible wound exists like the one pictured, or closed head injuries. Photo Credit: Bobjgalindo, Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license).
What we do know is that head injuries are now so prevalent that that we should begin regarding them as a crisis, if we don’t already. Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) are now more common than either breast cancer or AIDS, The Franklin Institute reports. And yes, it’s true – several sports are linked to head injuries, most notably boxing and football. Keep in mind, though, that “although these are important causes of TBI, they still make up a minority of overall causes of brain injury,” reported TakePart.
From a pro-sports-ban perspective, “a boxing bout is little more than a session of mutual brain injury,” Yahoo! Sports wrote. The link between football and brain damage is hardly news anymore, after more than 4,000 former professional football players began pursuing legal action against the National Football League (NFL) for allegedly concealing or understating the risks of head injuries associated with the sport, especially chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), according to ABC News.
Can this cause a brain injury? Sure. Is it the only or even leading cause of brain injury? No – far from it. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
While these sports are taking the most heat for health risks right now, others may follow close behind. Already, The Franklin Institute points out youth soccer as a problematic source of brain injuries, and the American Association of Neurological Surgeons adds ice or roller hockey, basketball, baseball, and even skiing to the list of sports associated with certain types of brain injuries. Whether or not individual sports such as boxing and football are banned may set a precedent for how injuries sustained while playing these other sports are dealt with.
I’ve seen firsthand how brain injury does not just interrupt a life, but makes it totally unrecognizable. On a daily basis, my team works with people who have had life as they knew it ripped apart because of a serious brain injury. And “sad” doesn’t even begin to cover the situation. It’s horrifying. It’s tragic.
When a severe head injury occurs on the field, even the most enthusiastic sports lovers in the audience look on in horror. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
So, yes, I completely understand when the proponents of banning sports ask whether recreation of any kind is really worth the devastation that brain injuries create. But I still believe that in many ways, the big-picture losses of brain injuries have little to do with the images that can be seen on CT scan or MRI results, and much more to do with the loss of functioning. It’s the decrease in physical and cognitive abilities that cripples a victim’s opportunity to live a full life – a life that consists of all of the things that individual enjoyed doing before the injury occurred, sports included.
When we insist that the only way to decrease the number of head injuries is to ban sports like boxing and football entirely, we are not only ignoring the many other factors that impact participant safety, but we are doing a disservice to the responsible athletes who know the risks but choose to play due to sheer love of the sport. Forget cutting off your nose to spite your face – aren’t we, in some measure, cutting off our nose in a vain attempt to prevent harm to our heads?
If people pushing to ban boxing and football due to the risk of brain injury get their wish, what will that decision mean for the future of all sports? Football may be a top priority, but youth players get hurt in lacrosse, soccer, basketball, and other sports, too. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
What about other ways to prevent or reduce the amount of sports-related brain injuries? If helmets do not do enough to prevent concussions, as Red Orbit wrote, or if they even give players a false sense of security, as HealthLine reported may be the case, then it’s time to put renewed research efforts into improving safety gear of all kinds, and for all sports.
Already, researchers like engineer Phil Bayly at Washington University in St. Louis are hard at work studying what happens when a concussion occurs. The information gained through computer simulations may help doctors better treat head injuries and allow sports equipment manufacturers to design helmets that better protect players’ brains. On the sports front, physical trainer, former high school football player, and brain injury survivor Joshua Haddock worked with a former coach to develop a sensor system called Halo-One, reported the Forsyth News. This system would measure the force of blows to the head and alert players and coaches when a serious head injury occurs so that the wounded player would not be able to continue playing, worsening the brain damage.
When players are involved in a serious collision, existing helmets aren’t enough to stop either the pain or the potential for serious brain damage. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Sports teams, too, can put procedures in place to prevent or more easily diagnose concussions. At West Point, for example, athletes take a computer-based test called the ImPACT to evaluate their neurocognitive functioning before the season begins. If a head injury occurs, the results of this initial test help coaches and doctors determine the extent of brain damage based on how test scores after the injury compare with the original results.
In March 2013, General Electric and the NFL announced plans to spend $60,000,000 to research new technologies for diagnosing and producing images of brain injuries, The Business Journal reported. Now, high-level NFL representatives are even backing initiatives to change rules for the purpose of making football safer, The Washington Post reported.
Perhaps equally important is for athletes of every age to understand before they walk out on the field just what risks they are undertaking and how to minimize the likelihood of sustaining serious damage. To make sure players are informed, a number of former players and brain injury survivors are taking it upon themselves to spread the word during public appearances, The Mercury reported.
States are now taking it upon themselves to protect athletes, especially children and young adults. According to the Char-Koosta News, 43 states already have regulations to ensure that procedures were in place to educate student athletes, their parents, and coaches and deal with head injuries that arise. More states are continuing the trend, with the Dylan Steigers Protection of Youth Athletes Act currently under consideration in Montana, a measure known as Jenna’s Law that would expand on existing such laws in Oregon, and a similar state bill being considered in Tennessee.
Head injuries are serious at any age, but may be especially so for youth athletes whose brains are still developing. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Do I believe that sports should be banned because they present a risk for brain injury? No. I also don’t believe that automobiles should be banned, though car accidents are to blame for half of all TBIs, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus. In every aspect of our lives – not just sports– some small degree of risk exists. We can and should minimize those dangers and hold accountable people who unnecessarily put the safety of others at risk, but it is neither possible to avoid every potential risk nor practical to attempt to do so. However, do I believe that the sports industry has an obligation to thoroughly educate and inform prospective athletes of risks including but not limited to brain injury and to have solid procedures in place for when injuries occur? Absolutely.