As we head into Autumn, the majority of both sports and brain injury discussions remains firmly centered around football. High school football is a big Friday night draw across the country, and the NFL just began their regular season.
Drawing even more attention is the huge lawsuit awaiting approval for a settlement between over 4,200 former NFL players and the league. Parents are concerned about the health of their children, sports fans are concerned over rule changes and sidelined players.
But, football isn’t the only sport attempting to manage its concussion woes. We are also drawing closer to winter, the time of year many strap on a set of skis or a snowboard and hit the slopes. This winter in particular will be a big one for the skiers who have taken to extreme stunts and races. This February in Sochi will be the first time in history the superpipe skiing event will a part of the Olympics.
To many extreme sports lovers, this is a wonderful addition to the Olympic games, but for a sport already dealing with rising awareness of traumatic brain injury, it may end up being a tragic addition.
These “superpipes” are half-pipes that reach 22′ tall, and athletes fly over 40′ in the air at speeds up to 30mph performing dangerous stunts above hard ice. Many would argue these huge half-pipes are the natural extension of a set of sports known for pushing the limits. Snowboarders “know what they’re signing up for” when they begin leaping huge heights and putting themselves in grave danger. But, the fact is, anything is further from the truth. Just ask Kevin Pearce.
Pearce was a 2010 Winter Olympic hopeful, almost guaranteed a spot on the US team as the only other snowboarder expected to stand a chance against the superstar Shaun White. During training however, everything went wrong and Kevin discovered how little he really knew about traumatic brain injuries.
Kevin attempted a difficult trick called a Double Cork, involving a specific grab with two complete flips and three-and-a-half spins. He had practiced the trick extensively, but was trying it out for the first time at the Olympic half-pipe when he fell face first. Kevin couldn’t breath on his own, and he was in a coma for six days. He suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. He was also lucky.
Kevin’s injury and his rehabilitation are the focus of the recent documentary “The Crash Reel”, which premiered on HBO in July, but is coming to theaters in December and expected to be released on DVD in early 2014. It also shows the real toll of brain injuries without flinching.
Kevin was staged to be a superstar. He was poised to be the only real challenge for Shaun White, and winning a gold at the Olympics would have made him a household name. Instead, less than two months before the competition, his career was ended in a blink of an eye.
Kevin is lucky because he lived. He fell directly onto his face and head from multiple stories up. He was wearing a helmet, but snowboard helmets are only made to withstand up to 17 mph, not the 30 mph athletes reach in half-pipes. But, that isn’t always the case.
Kevin spent 26 days in intensive care, with his large family constantly by his side. While they waited for their son to hopefully become responsive, they met the family of Mark von Bucher, a young skier who suffered a similar accident. While the Pearce’s were lucky enough to get their son back, the von Bucher’s lost their son.
Then, last year while skiing on the same half-pipe Kevin was injured on, his friend Sarah Burke suffered a similar crash. She died nine days after the accident.
The documentary, directed by Lucy Walker, shows these events to serve as a contrast to Kevin’s story. It took Pearce months to recover enough to leave a rehabilitation center, and even then he needed to be constantly observed by friends and family. He had to relearn how to speak and how to walk. He suffered from seizures, specifically in his arm, and required eye surgery. Even now, Kevin suffers from double-vision.
This is what severe brain injury looks like when things go right. Kevin is now largely independent and “healed” but he will never be the same person he was. He still suffers behavioral and mood control problems. More importantly for Kevin, he will never be able to compete as a snowboarder again.
From the moment Kevin is able to speak after his injury, he was insistent that he would return to snowboarding. His father compares it to an addiction. Time and time again, Kevin is confronted by his family and his doctors, and they all discourage him from ever snowboarding again. At his two year review, his doctor finally puts it as bluntly as possible when he states “you cannot afford to hit your head.” But none of this stops him.
Kevin has snowboarded since his brain injury. He was even allowed to compete in one small slalom race. But, Kevin cannot snowboard like he used to. He can’t make the jumps he used to, he isn’t as fast, and he suffers balance problems. Despite all of this, it is clear if Kevin had the opportunity to, he would return to snowboarding tomorrow.
But, “The Crash Reel” is largely the story of Kevin coming to terms with his injury. He can’t compete anymore, but he is involved in snowboarding as a commentator and public speaker. He has found peace with the fact that he won’t compete again and put his efforts towards educating athletes and the youth about brain injuries.
“The Crash Reel” is also the story of a sport in crisis however, and even more broadly the question of how do you protect athletes when they are driven by the need to outdo those before them. Snowboarders are driven to go higher, and football players push themselves to hit harder. It is the nature of sports. Just in the year following Kevin’s crash, the double cork went from a risky new move to a standard trick pulled out at most contests.
The fact is, we will never be a way to stop the thrill seekers and competitive athletes from pushing their barriers, but we aren’t even doing everything we can to protect them now. But, as fans, at some point we have a responsibility to do something for these athletes and set barriers. Half-pipes were originally 6-8′ tall. The superpipe Burke lost her life and Kevin was injured on was 22′. Thanks to Burke’s efforts, skiers will be competing on pipes that large in the Olympics this February.
Our biggest priority is informing these athletes, especially at a young age, and showing them the real picture of what a brain injury is. Most athletes understand what a concussion is, but are completely ignorant about traumatic brain injuries. Kevin had never even heard of TBI until his injury. He had no idea what could actually happen. The same could be said for most football players. Concussion is a household term, but traumatic brain injury is completely foreign to many athletes despite the constant danger.
The second responsibility we have is ensuring those involved with sports we love are getting the proper care. Neither Kevin or Sarah were insured for an injury like what they encountered. Their families were only able to provide care for their children through charity.
Most snowboarders are only covered by insurance for competition. Pearce was training, and Burke was in a sponsored event. The majority of injuries occur outside of covered competitions, and snowboarders who were previously able to support themselves through sponsorships are suddenly tossed out on their own, with only the hope that they saved enough to cover their treatment.
What “The Crash Reel” accomplishes above anything else is showing the true face of brain injuries. When the news talks about concussions in sports, fans imagine a little dizziness and some light rest. This might be true for the majority, but it doesn’t reduce the chances that the injured player is actually on the precipice of life-threatening injury. It should be noted, Kevin Pearce’s brain was actually healthier after his accident than many NFL players’ brain scans show.
As fans of sports, we have to push for an environment of mutual responsibility for these players. Football and extreme sports are both billion dollar industries that put athletes at huge risk for our entertainment. The least we can do is make sure these athletes actually know what they are risking, and our covered in case of tragedy.