Charles Barkley’s Thoughts On Concussions Highlight Dangerous Misunderstandings

It is no secret that football has a concussion problem. The high-impact sport is known for its huge hits and explosive plays that often leave players sprawled out on the field. The repeated concussions experienced in football have also been highly linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. But, football isn’t the only sport with a concussion crisis.

Athletes in all forms of contact sports – and many non-contact sports – are being diagnosed with significant brain injuries every day and former players from sports of all kinds are experiencing symptoms of CTE later in life.

Unfortunately, the concentrated coverage of football’s brain injury issues seems to be giving rise to new misunderstandings and myths that could be potentially dangerous.

Barkley in 2008 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Barkley in 2008
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was especially clear last week when NBA legend Charles Barkley gave his thoughts about a brain injury experienced in the NBA playoffs.

Speaking to ESPN’s SportsCenter about the concussion experienced by Kevin Love in Game 2 of the NBA finals, Barkley made the claim that concussions in football and basketball are not the same.

“I know we’ve got a problem with concussions in football, but I think it’s unfair to try to compare football and basketball concussions together,” Barkley said. “You get hit every play. You can have a bunch of mini concussions in football.”

While it is understandable to think the concussions experienced during hard collisions in football may be different than what an NBA player might experience, there isn’t much truth to Barkley’s claims.

There is little evidence that concussions in the NFL are more serious than those in the NBA. More importantly, every concussion is a significant health issue that should be taken seriously. It doesn’t matter if that concussion occurs during a football game or basketball game, during a bicycle race, or in an accident at a cheerleading competition.

Barkley Playing For The Philadelphia 76ers in 1991.

Barkley Playing For The Philadelphia 76ers in 1991.

Barkley’s mention of “mini-concussions” or subconcussive hits also reflects a misunderstanding on the athlete’s part. It may be true that football players are subject to repeated low-level hits that could potentially be dangerous in the long run, basketball players are also likely to experience subconcussive hits to the head each game through shoves, falls, and accidental contact.

Subconcussive hits have been tied to CTE, but even stronger associations have been drawn between total clinical concussions and the permanent brain disease. In this case, Barkley’s own words are evidence that basketball players can experience a worrying number of brain injuries throughout their career.

When asked how many concussions Barkley thinks he experienced during his time on the court, Barkley responded, “I probably had 10 good ones.”

Ultimately, Barkley’s words were well intentioned. Despite his dangerous claims about brain injuries, the athlete’s larger point was that media and fans should give Kevin Love time to recover without pressuring the injured player.

However, it is important to realize that there is no real difference between a concussion in basketball and a concussion in football. It is essential that any player who is injured by a hit to the head be pulled from play, be assessed for traumatic brain injuries, and given time to properly recover.

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