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Will Professional Sports Survive the Concussion Epidemic?

The National Football League (NFL) should be commended for the initial steps it has taken to address the issue of concussions. Rejecting the short-term and potential long-term consequences of concussions is an out-of-date concept.

As recently as 2006, the NFL published literature minimizing the impact of concussions. In fairness to them, there has been a marked increase in our understanding of concussions over the past 10 years. Have the actions undertaken by the NFL to address concussions been proportionate to our increased knowledge in this field?

nfl-concussion

Enrollment in ‘Pop Warner’ Football reportedly declined by 9.5% between 2010 and 2012, and concern regarding head injury was cited as the primary reason. In the current issue of the Journal, Hotz et al (pages 11-16) have reported their find-ings in high school sports, including football.

For a league with current annual revenue of $9 billion and a projected target of $25 billion per year by 2027, has the NFL invested sufficiently in a nationwide education and awareness program to protect the brains of children and, ultimately, their own sport from itself?

The NFL deserves credit for instituting rule changes to address concussions. What is the right balance of protecting the integrity of the game and the health of its players? Has the NFL done enough to care for retired players suffering the consequences of head injury? Does the lack of guaranteed contracts in the NFL create a culture conducive to players reporting concussions? Is it the responsibility of the NFL to invest in independent clinical research? If so, is the NFL providing sufficient funds to address objective measures to diagnose concussions (eg, neuroimaging, biomarkers), and therapeutics for the short and long-term impacts of concussions?

The challenge surrounding concussions are systemic to our society (school boards, workers boards, insurance industry, various sports, etc); however, in the current issue of the Journal, we have approached concussions from the perspective of a game close to our hearts. I watch the NFL every Sunday religiously – Monday and Thursday too, if possible. I am expecting my first son in the next few months and I am looking forward to introducing him to the sport I love.

It is unfair to be overly critical of the NFL when they have taken several positive steps to address concussions. The NFL is a powerful machine that has the ability, if it chooses, to play a major leadership role in the discussion surrounding concussions beyond football.

Although this message is focused on football – every athlete participating in a major sport is susceptible to concussions – hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, etc. Will other professional leagues that devote less attention to this issue at this time be proactive?

Professional sport is a business. Children look up to professional athletes and develop their love for the game watching their favourite players. The ultimate solution requires a balance between the importance of health and safety and profitability. It is imperative that the leagues maintain fiscal responsibility to ensure the quality of the product remains high.

Would it make sense for the major sports leagues to work collaboratively in the scientific arena of concussions? The five major sports leagues could jointly develop a global concussion education and research program with the output reaching every child’s classroom. The shared infrastructure would lower overhead costs for the respective leagues. This solution provides compassion toward children and professional athletes while maintaining fiscal responsibility for shareholders – a win win.

I believe football and other sports will survive; however, it is imperative that the aforementioned issues be tackled head on… no pun intended.

Commissioners Goodell, Bettman, Silver, Manfred and Blatter, the time is now – each of you has the power to be instrumental in protecting the brains of children across the globe – what a legacy to leave!

Dr. Neilank Jha is a neurosurgeon and the head of Konkussion Inc- a concussion treatment program in Toronto. The full whitepaper, “Solving the Concussion Crisis: Practical Solutions”, can be viewed here.

For interview requests with Dr. Jha, please contact Jordan at Toronto PR Firm Grey Smoke Media.