Lately, not a day goes by when we don’t hear about which professional athlete has been sidelined or benched due to a concussion. Formerly the province of boxers, concussions, once called “the invisible injury,” are no longer invisible, as network TV and the movie industry have unveiled their presence across sports, whether football, ice hockey, soccer, rugby, NASCAR, and beyond.
Concussions are not new as a type of traumatic brain injury. However, the incidence and prevalence of concussions have increased not only in professional and college athletes, but at the youth sports level.
Why is that?
- More athletic exposures increase the probability of injury. In comparison to previous generations, more youth are playing sports, and they are playing year-round in multiple sports, and starting at earlier ages. In addition, female athletes have grown in number over the past 20 years. Youth begin specializing earlier, another factor contributing to increased injury. And as TV reality shows such as Friday Night Tykes demonstrate, the importance of competition and winning is at an all-time high, perhaps fueled by our society’s glamorization of professional sports.
- Improved identification and diagnosis. The growth in brain research has been exponential over the past few decades, especially with advances in neuroimaging and neuropsychological assessment techniques. Couple that fact with new concussion laws across all 50 United States and the District of Columbia. We are weathering a perfect storm of public education and awareness, and the development of healthcare guidelines by numerous medical organizations including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Media and Electronic Communication. Never have we been so in touch with the world around us. Information travels fast, whether televised or tweeted. The successes and tragedies of highly visible icons, such as many of our professional athletes, become common knowledge in a moment’s notice. Not surprisingly, the coverage of concussion in the news has made it one of the hottest topics around, as evidenced by “concussion count” websites popping up at all age levels of sport.
- Equipment and Physical Fitness. Sports equipment has become bigger and better over the years, and so have the players. Improvements in sports equipment have increased protection from injuries in general. However, helmets cannot guarantee protection from concussions, although they can reduce fractures and more serious injury. The question is now whether bigger, better equipment just encourages harder, riskier play due to an aggrandized sense of invincibility. Also, players across all sports, even golf, now tend to be stronger, larger, and more physically fit than in previous generations (consider the young Gary Player vs. Tiger Woods), which may further contribute to tougher play in contact and collision sports.
So, what does this mean for the future of sports in America?
We are already seeing major changes limiting youth sports practices and physical contacts related to football tackling, ice hockey checking, and soccer heading. Game rules are being modified and new types of protective equipment and devices are being tested. Ultimately, sports are here to stay. Their value is clear in providing opportunities for physical fitness, skill development, social belonging, strategic thinking, and fun. There is inherent risk in life and in sport. It is now time for policymakers, legislators, researchers, clinicians, sports personnel and entrepreneurs, athletes, the media and the public to step up to the plate and make sports safer and, ultimately, more enjoyable for all.