Brains and football: A bad combination


Football Helmet
Football is all over the news this week with the upcoming Superbowl game. This is America’s sport with the highest television viewership and a large economic engine is attached to the football at every level. Kids want to play the sport and are supported in joining youth leagues at an early age by their parents who usually are fans themselves and former participants. Our childhood  heroes are drawn from the sports pages. Let’s face it, football is a big part of our lives.

The back story to football is the effect of multiple concussions. The research into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, known as CTE, has revealed that football players who experience multiple concussions are at risk for the development of protein plaques in their brains which change brain function and that the development of the symptoms occur over the course of time. The NFL is now playing a pivotal role in their recognition of the effects of multiple concussions. The jury remains out about how their proposed settlement addresses the true lifetime costs associated with the disabling effects of CTE. And, there are former players who remain outside of the group covered by the NFL program who are dealing with the effects of brain injury in their lives. The tragedies of Junior Seau, Dave Dursen and others should not need to be repeated.

An important aspect to addressing brain injury is prevention. A recent study referenced in a story in the New York Times talks about the effects of tackle football-related brain injuries on young players. These child athletes are experiencing memory and cognitive problems related to concussive injuries. George Visger, a former player for the 49’rs who is living with the effects of multiple football related brain injuries, addressed his concerns in a recent article for Slate. Are coaches being trained to respond to the signs of concussions, are parents aware of the risks of concussion and is equipment adequate to protect young brains? George Visger remains a fan of football like all of us, but he says the sport needs to change at all levels and points to youth football as included in where change needs to occur. The research into child and adult brain injuries supports his statement: “football needs to change”. Players need coaches who are trained to respond aggressively to the early signs of concussion, physicians need to be brought into potential problems earlier and equipment needs to evolve to better protect players’ brains. Even parents cheering from the sidelines need to understand that their encouragement needs to be modulated and “hit ’em hard, son” may not be the best parental advice.

With the Superbowl approaching this weekend we need to remember that this sport has a high risk for brain injury and football needs improvement in detection, prevention and treatment. The New York Times article tells us that young brains are at a great risk. Can we do the right thing to protect our athletes from a lifetime of brain injury?

About Rolf Gainer Ph.D.

Dr. Rolf Gainer is the founder of the Neurologic Rehabilitation Institute at Brookhaven Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma as well as the Neurological Rehabilitation Institute of Ontario, in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Gainer is a psychologist with more than twenty-five years of experience in the treatment and rehabilitation of individuals with brain injuries and a dual diagnosis. Dr. Gainer has designed and operated innovative rehabilitation programs in the United States and Canada for individuals who have been regarded as difficult to serve. He is currently involved in conducting two outcome studies related to the long-term issues faced by individuals with brain injuries and a dual diagnosis. He has presented papers throughout the United States and Canada in many professional conferences and educational forums.

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