While the scandal at Penn State remains in the headlines, with good reason, we should also focus attention on a significant problem facing student athletes: concussions in college football. In the weeks ahead, along with the excitement of post-season play, we will, in all likelihood, see at close range the health consequences of a sport that's based on collisions.
An estimated 300,000 sports-related traumatic brain injuries, most of them concussions, occur annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Concussions can happen in a variety of sports, but it is football and the martial arts that have taught us the most about their incidence and severity.
The adverse effects of concussions may appear immediately or may occur weeks, months, or even years later. In former pro football players, we see higher than average levels of memory loss and even dementia. Further, it is not just the "big hit" that causes harm: data indicate that multiple smaller hits may be causing cumulative damage to neurological and cognitive function. We have also learned that after a concussion, patients need cognitive as well as physical rest -- a finding with important implications for college students.
We must act now to prevent the immediate and long-term harm caused by concussions in football. Of course, some argue that football is in essence a violent sport and in fact that is one reason both players and fans like it. Some may claim that protecting our athletes will somehow harm the sport. But such claims pale in light of the fact that young athletes are suffering unnecessary harm and that we can do something about it.
We can take preventive and therapeutic action without destroying the sport. Coaches know that athletes can prepare with less contact in training -- and thus fewer opportunities for injury -- than they're having now. Many of us have forgotten that there was a time when helmets were not worn and that the NCAA was formed in 1906 primarily to change football rules to protect the health and safety of players who were dying on the field. Football can -- and must -- change more.
The NFL has tightened some of its rules that govern when players can return to the game after concussions and has made efforts to educate players about the risks. These are good steps, although more can and should be done in pro football.
What about college football?
Last summer Ivy League presidents adopted recommendations from an ad hoc committee of coaches, administrators, doctors, trainers and expert consultants to significantly change the way our football teams practice and play, in order to reduce the chances of concussion and to limit the harm of concussions that do occur. We made the following changes:
- Limit the number of full-contact practices in season to two per week, although the NCAA allows five.
- Reduce the hitting that occurs during preseason and spring practice.
- Better educate student-athletes about head injuries and about proper tackling techniques.
- Limit physical and cognitive activity in the period following a documented concussion.
- Increase penalties for helmet or head hits.
It may be hard for young players or pros to accept the fact that what they're doing could seriously damage their quality of life years from now. But we have plenty of data to compel us to limit the chances of head injury now and to treat our athletes after concussion in ways that will maximize their long-term health and well-being.
The Ivy League has taken an important step. Administrators, coaches, trainers -- anyone with authority in football programs, from middle school to the pros -- needs to do the same. Or find an even better way to protect our players.