Football’s overrated concussion epidemic

Daniel J. Flynn Author, Columnist
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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.

Football has come a long way from when Yale gridiron guru Walter Camp lamented cumbersome head protectors. Or has it? “There’s no X-ray,” Dr. Joseph Congeni informs on testing for concussions. “There’s no blood test.” Medicine has made no real advances during the last century in the basic way it diagnoses and treats concussions. Doctors still clinically diagnose concussions and still prescribe rest to treat them. Juxtaposed with the helmet gizmos and mouthpiece gadgets, the medicine may appear antiquated. But, unlike the hi-tech gear, the low-tech medicine has a long track record of working.

So do sound fundamentals. “The Smartest Team” features Bobby Hosea, a former UCLA standout who teaches tackling to players. The former professional cornerback hopes for a “standardized tackling” technique to eradicate any vestiges of dangerous helmet-first hits. In the meantime, he evangelizes heads-up tackling to football-camp goers. The technique, heavily involving hips, shoulders, and arms, instructs defenders to thrust upward (“rip up!”) through ball carriers. “The Smartest Team” shows that instruction wasn’t always as enlightened as Coach Hosea’s. A grainy, black-and-white film shows a tackling drill in which defenders aim their heads through circular targets. A narrator observes, “The effects of improper tackling are still being felt to this day.”

But football has evolved from those training-camp reels that show players propelling the crowns of their heads through target holes for tackling drills. Rules, equipment, coaching, and technology have progressed. And so, thankfully, have the Newcastle Racers. The football team profiled in “The Smartest Team” suffered sixteen concussions during the 2011 season. The following year, they suffered just two.

The lesson? Football, like its players, improves.

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game.