PBS outlets around the country have been airing a terrific documentary on football and concussions. But it’s not the one that’s getting all the attention.
“The Smartest Team,” a film by former football mom Brooke de Lench, explores whether concussions are an inevitable outcome of the sport or a preventable problem. They’re probably a bit of both, but “The Smartest Team” makes a convincing case in its profile of a high school football team in rural Oklahoma that coaching, education, equipment, technology, and parental involvement can dramatically reduce the risk of gridiron head injuries. In doing so, the documentary’s cautious tone stands betwixt the alarmists condemning football players to fortysomething senility and the naysayers lamenting any rule change as evidence that football has become as soft as foosball.
In contrast to “the sky is falling!” tone of Frontline’s “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” “The Smartest Team” lends itself neither to exclamation points nor to a Fourth-estate feeding frenzy. “The sky isn’t falling” just doesn’t attract the crowd in that way. But in instructing rather than inflaming, “The Smartest Team” provides useful information to parents and players concerned about concussions.
“Whether or not they have a concussion actually is the least of my concerns,” Dr. William Meehan III of Boston’s Children’s Hospital says of laid-out players. Given the range of possibilities from skull fractures to spinal-chord injuries, a mild traumatic brain injury — as its name implies — is far from the worst outcome. Parents may freak out over a lone concussion, but studies do not show long-term neurodegenerative effects from a single mild traumatic brain injury. Repeated concussions are another matter. The documentary stresses that just as concussed competitors should be immediately removed from play, competitors who have sustained repeated concussions should permanently remove themselves from play.
Players aren’t helpless in reducing risk. “People with stronger neck muscles have a lower risk of concussions,” Dr. Meehan sensibly reports. Given that concussions tend to happen later in games, when fatigue overwhelms fundamentals, coaches should train for endurance and not just explosion. Dr. Meehan notes, “Keeping in good physical condition reduces concussion.”
The program equips the Newcastle Racers with cutting-edge technology. The players undergo computerized neurocognitive testing, the results of which can be used as a baseline of comparison to the scores from tests taken post-concussion to aid in return-to-play decisions. They discover impact-sensitive mouth guards with tiny circuit boards embedded within that purport to track the force and location of collisions. Similarly, helmet-sensor technology developed for military use reports the number of impacts to a sideline iPad via Bluetooth.