American Football from a fans perspective

It’s all in the head: Football has a problem with effectively reporting concussion.

CTE, Brain injuries, concussions, ongoing damage from repeated minor clashes. All of these things have caught the attention of players, coaches, fans, management, medical staff and in fact anybody and everybody who loves to watch the game is more much more aware of the potential long term dangers inherent in the game than ever before.

During wild card weekend the sight of an obviously dazed Cam Newton left some to wonder why the Panthers seemingly weren’t following the NFL concussion protocol. That is not a debate for here, but it does show how prominent the idea of concussion and the care needed around it has become.

So the latest news to come out of a study done by researchers at Montreal’s McGill University is pretty troubling. They conducted a survey of 454 CFL players during the 2016 preseason with support from the league and the CFL Players’ Association, and they published their results this month in a paper titled ‘Why Professional Football Players Chose Not to Reveal Their Concussion Symptoms during a Practice or Game’ in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine.

The paper is available online and is Open Access so if you want you can read the abstract or dig a bit deeper by downloading the full text:

As the study was done on an anonymous basis we might expect greater transparency in the responses. However, as the study was done on a questionnaire basis we should also remember however that people may read differently into each question and therefore reply based on their own interpretation of the question – i.e. what is ‘positive’ to someone may be ‘negative’ to someone else, therefore there is a level of subjectivity that needs to be acknowledged. As this study was done in a fairly straightforward way however, that should be mitigated somewhat.

Scott Delaney who led the study suggests that replacing “concussion” with “brain injury” when discussing these issues may prompt more athletes to think about the long term effects of what is happening to them and consider more readily reporting on them.

Of the 454 Canadian Football League players who anonymously filled out questionnaires during the 2016 pre-season it was found that 23.4 per cent felt they had suffered a concussion during the 2015 season and that 82.1 per cent of that group did not seek treatment for a suspected concussion at least once during the season. Only six per cent who said they would see a doctor after a game did so, and only about 20 per cent always reported concussions to the team medical staff.

The report’s conclusions goes on to state that “players seemed educated about the concussion evaluation process and possible treatment guidelines, but this knowledge did not necessarily translate into safe and appropriate behaviour at the time of injury.”

Just why players aren’t reporting concussions becomes a key question. Interestingly, it doesn’t appear to be about money. CFL players’ reluctance to admit to concussions was only slightly higher than had been found in a similar survey two years ago of unpaid student athletes on men’s and women’s teams in various sports at McGill and Concordia.

“They hid just as many concussions and they hid them for almost exactly the same reasons,” Delaney commented recently. “They didn’t think it was very dangerous. They had done it before. They didn’t want to miss this game or the next game.

Football has always been ‘the ultimate team game’. Perhaps not letting your teammates down is at the heart of this. Or perhaps players don’t want to lose the chance to keep their place doing what they love. Whatever it is, this is a serious issue going forward. Players need to be protected as much as possible from long term damage from the game. To that end they need to be encouraged to protect themselves too by reporting things like this.

The report on the study notes that in a study done in 1997 many CFL players did not even know that they had suffered a concussion. Awareness has certainly improved significantly since then but clearly things need to improve more than in understanding alone.

If, as this study seems to suggest, players are aware of the dangers but not reporting them effectively then something needs to change. One strand is to hammer home the education of players about just how serous the lasting damage could potentially be, but perhaps more fundamentally there needs to be a cultural shift. It is going to have to be OK to admit that you are injured/hurt/concerned.

If we want to protect the game, then we should also want to protect the players who play it and to do that we have to help the to help themselves.





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