Concussions in Professional sports The problem the sports world has yet to overcome

Wham! The impact sent the player flat to his back where he lay, grabbing his head, motionless. The sound of the collision echoed throughout the stadium and resembled the sound of a person being hit hard in the head with a brick at close range. The force of the hit was literally comparable to a car crash. But this was not a car crash. It was an NFL kick return and the player was just hit at full speed by his opponent in the head. His brain sloshed back and forth inside his skull until it lagged behind and suddenly whipped forward into the front of the skull. This is a concussion. Not all concussions cause people to loose consciousness, but when professional athletes run full speed, head on into one another, without the proper safety equipment, the result is a severe concussion. The NFL is not the only organization that needs to address concussions. The majority of the sports world needs to confront the issues concussions are creating.

Concussions in the NFL

Pro-football in the NFL is the most common sport in which players suffer concussions and head trauma. In the 2015 season, players on all 32 NFL teams suffered an immense sum of 271 concussions in practice, preseason gameplay, and regular season games. This is a 31.6% enlargement in concussions since the 2014 season. 2014, however, had an abrupt plunge in concussions - 123 total concussions were endured in regular season games. In 2012, 171 concussions were sustained in regular season games and 152 were suffered in 2013 regular season games. The sudden plummet in concussions in 2014, and the substantial increase of concussions in 2015 to 199 concussions in regular season gameplay has led experts to surmise that the NFL is leaving some concussions undocumented. The image below shows the NFL concussion count versus the injury report. One third of all concussions in the NFL's concussion count were left off the official league report in 2012 and 2013 so the plummet in 2014 may be because of better protection or because fewer concussions were reported. Since the concussion rate skyrocketed in 2015, that eliminates superior protective gear.

If fewer concussions are reported, how come the league is overlooking this? The answer may lie with the fans. The NFL viewers want to see the exciting starting players who make the big plays, not the second or third string player who would start for the injured fan favorite. The NFL wants ratings and viewers and the audience wants excitement, so according to Frontline concussion watch, 49.5% of NFL players who are concussed do not miss a game. This corresponds nicely with the 39 out of 100 players interviewed by Frontline that said they were concerned about the long term effects of concussions. In a study of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), 87 of the 91 brains researched had CTE.

It is not that the players do not care about the results of repeated head to head hits, but the fact that most are unaware of the damage repeated jostling of the brain can do. The NFL had recently paid a $900 million in a lawsuit. More than 200 lawsuits have been filed by more than 5,000 NFL players because they were unaware of the damage of repeated concussions and jostling of the brain on a daily basis and because the NFL never bothered to tell them the long term effects of concussions after their careers were over.

Concussions per NFL position and team in 2015

Courtesy of Frontline concussion watch 2015 regular season concussions

During the 2014 season the Cleveland Browns and the San Diego Chargers both suffered significantly fewer concussions, the Browns' entire roster suffered only 5 recorded concussions and the Chargers' roster suffered 7 total recorded concussions.

Concussions per position

Frontline concussion watch 2015 NFL concussions per position chart

As the NFL is a "pass happy league" as Sports Illustrated puts it, so cornerbacks and wide receivers are not surprisingly at the top of the list for concussions since cornerbacks tackle head on and have to make diving tackles to stop potentially big plays. Wide receivers, who make leaping grabs and take hits throughout the game are second on the list of concussions per position, but first on the offensive concussions list. Even though the cornerbacks are expected to be on the top of the list as they were during the 2014 season, they experienced a dramatic increase in concussions, a staggering 17 more concussions in 2015, compared to the previous year, where cornerbacks suffered a total of 24 concussions.

Surprises on the list

Surprisingly, running backs who plummet into the pile of blockers and defenders from the line of scrimmage only suffered a total of 11 concussions throughout the league in 2015. You would think that running backs who run behind 300 pound offensive linemen for an average of 4-5 yards per carry before they are tackled by multiple defenders, and smothered under the offensive and defensive lines bodies. Starters do this an average of twenty times per game, so it is incredible that they suffer so few concussions.

Peter Diana, Post Gazzette

Defensive Tackles suffered the least concussions in 2015, with 7 concussions received league wide by defensive tackles. Since the defensive tackle's job is to charge into the offensive line, grappling head on to get to the ball career, it is astounding how few concussions were sustained in 2015. Although the defensive tackles had only 7 concussions, their brains are jostled every snap, so they still have ahigh likelihood of getting CTE later in their lives

Getty images

Concussions in the NHL

The NHL, or National Hockey League, is known for its fast paced passing, shooting, and scoring. It is also known for its fist fights and checks into the boards. In a study held from the 1997- 2004 NHL season, 559 concussions were suffered throughout the NHL. That is a rate of 5.8 concussions per 100 players, or 1.45 concussions per 1000 playable hours. The highest concussion rate in the NHL was 7.7 concussions per 100 players during the 2000-2001 season. The lowest concussion rate as of 2011 was 4.6 concussions per 100 players in the 1997-98 season. The study also found that "from the 1986–1987 to 1995–1996 seasons, there was an average of 12 concussions per season. From the 1996–1997 to 2001–2002 seasons, there was an average of 56 concussions per season, more than triple" (Izraelski). This shows that even though concussions aren't as numerous in NHL as they are in the NFL, but they are still an issue that the NHL is grappling with. Many NHL players are showing symptoms of CTE after retirement including depression and suicide. Although the NHL denies CTE links, concussions from contact to the head is a leading cause of CTE, so despite it not being as relevant as it is in the NFL, CTE's presence is definitely surrounding professional ice hockey.

David E. Klutho, Getty images
Graph of study held from 1997-2004

Concussions in freestyle skiing

Freestyle skiing is not portrayed as an impact sport like football, but what most people don't realize is that it is. In a 7 year study of injuries in freestyle and alpine skiing and snowboarding, it was revealed that the majority of head injuries and concussions were freestyle skiing injuries and one in four head injuries/concussions were severe. As you can imagine, head injuries are more likely to occur while hitting aerial jumps in terrain parks and doing inverted tricks (as seen in the above video) than while traditionally skiing. Out of every 100 freestyle skiers, 5.7 suffer head injuries or concussions. This number is similar to the concussion rates in the NHL or National Hockey League. According to the study, male freestyle skiers endured 41 concussion related head injuries during competitions and training and female freestyle skiers suffered 35 concussions. One fourth of these injuries resulted in four weeks of skiing lost during competition season. That is a long time since the average ski season lasts only a few months.

Forced to quit early

Justin Dorey competing in the half pipe during the Dew Tour

Recently, 28 year old freestyle skier Justin Dorey who competed in the half pipe decided to end his skiing career. Dorey, an X Games gold medalist and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics 12th placed half pipe skier, said he was leaving his career in freestyle skiing because of head injuries. Dorey had a very simple explanation for retiring so young; he had sustained between 10 and 15 concussions throughout his career. That is a very large amount of times to hit your head severely for any sport. Does Dorey's retirement indicate freestyle skiers need more protective helmets? Or are the tricks becoming to big for any helmet to handle?

Why do Skiers compete while concussed?

The answer is the high stakes in competitions and the motivation to try to bring home a medal. The X Games, for instance, is a prestigious extreme sports competition in which the top athletes of a variety of different countries are invited to compete for a medal and cash prize. The cash prize for a gold medal rounds out at $20,000, so the athletes are not going to let a concussion stop them from competing. Even some of the best athletes have admitted to passing concussion tests with a concussion and continuing to compete. They include one of the best super pipe skiers, David Wise. But as professional skier Cody Townsend said, “If you fake your way through this and keep going, you could have repercussions for the rest of your life. You may win gold, but at a cost.” He has a point- is it worth it to win a gold medal, but have to suffer the results of the one concussion for the rest of your life because you didn't give it the proper rest time?

David Wise

What does Hommocks think??

To gather data about the student body's opinion on concussions at Hommocks, I made a survey and was able to get 17 responses relaying if the student was ever concussed, what sports they thought were more likely to concuss you, and specifically what is more concussive, freestyle skiing or traditional skiing.

Analyzing the results

Concussions received by participants

Surprisingly to me, 82.4% of respondents had not suffered a concussion (14 participants), 11.8% had suffered 2 concussions ( two participants), and only one person had suffered one concussion. This tells me that gear in youth sports is more protective which is extremely important because it means we are getting closer to concussion prevention in adolescent sports and that could soon transpire to professional sports. It also tells me that fewer students from a sample of the student body play contact sports that have a heavy concussion rate. Depending on the view point, this is either good, or bad. Contact sports involve injuries that include broken bones and head injuries such as concussions, so to someone against contact sports this is good, but they also involve lots of physical skill and team work. So for people who play contact sports, this is terrible because less people will participate on teams leading to the sports league they play in to demise. More kids will play contact sports if the gear becomes more protective because they will feel safer.

Most concussive sport

This chart shows the student body's opinion on which sport is the most concussive. The majority of surveyed students said tackle football, which is true. It is the most concussive sport professionally and in amateur sports. 17.6% of the surveyed students said that hockey is the sport that will most likely to concussions you. These students were close, in youth sports it is the second leading cause of concussions following behind football. In professional sports it also only trails football. No one chose freestyle skiing and no one put an "other" sport. (The one "other" response I got was "all of the above").

Freestyle skiing vs traditional skiing

A solid 100% of participants said freestyle skiing is most likely to concuss you. This is true, you are more likely to suffer a concussion in a terrain park than on traditional ski trails, but you are more likely to be injured while participating in traditional skiing and snowboarding. According to a study held by the National Institutes of Health from 2004-2005, 26.7% of injuries were freestyle skiing and snowboarding injuries and 73.3% of injuries that were recorded were from traditional skiing and riding. Since freestyle skiing and snowboarding are new sports, they have less participants, hence there are less injuries. If there were more freestyle skiing and riding participants, the number of injuries would sway towards freestyle skiing and riding because the number of freestyle skiers and snowboarders would even out with the amount of traditional skiers and snowboarders.


Concussion Prevention in the NFL

New helmet developed to protect players from being concussed

The NFL has recognized concussions as a major issue in football, and are taking steps to combat them. They recently invested $20 million in concussion prevention by investing in helmets developed by the University of Washington and the U.S Army. They are also using Q- collars, which clamp down comfortably on the neck, causing the brain to expand, leaving less room for the brain to move when the head is hit. Although the NFL can never completely eliminate concussions and head injuries, they are trying to reduce them as much as possible.


What is the NHL doing to prevent concussions?

The NHL has made helmets mandatory so skull fractures decreased immediately to barely any after they were incredibly common. So now the NHL must figure out how to do the same for concussions, since strapping a helmet on isn't the answer this time. Mouthguards are a step in the right direction as they protect both the teeth and the player from concussions. The NHL is also tightening concussion protocol, so if the doctor doesn't clear the player of being concussion free, no one on the team can influence the doctor into clearing the concussed player and allowing him to play.

Mouth guard

Concussion prevention in freestyle skiing

Crash at 2014 Sochi winter Olympics

Although helmets had been the main way to prevent concussions for years, skiers have started performing bigger and more difficult tricks that involve skiing at speeds that the helmet is unable to protect against concussions at. So what is the skiing community going to do to combat concussions? The answer is they will keep helmets, but add mouth guards. If you can prevent your teeth from slamming together, you can prevent a lot of ski-related concussions. This has been adapted to professional skiers and it has dropped the concussion rate significantly in competitions.

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