Soon after the new year, I came across an Associated Press article provocatively titled, “Study suggests strict rest may not be answer for concussions.” The AP piece was written by Lindsey Tanner, who specializes in medical issues. But the topic apparently originated at the Toronto-based Canadian Sports Concussion Project. According to Tanner, roughly a month after their concussions “ongoing or worse symptoms were more likely in children and teens who were inactive during that week” [my italics]. “Activity” was defined as “light exercise,” such as walking and swimming. The benefit, according to researchers, is both physical and psychological. Aerobic exercise, even at a mild level, refreshes blood to the brain. And that leads to a feeling of well-being, akin to mild runner’s high.
In Ohio, the birthplace of the National Football League, policymakers appear to be taking seriously the task of making youth football safer. “The whole point is the medical needs of the student- athletes are being addressed,” said Dr. Leda Ghannad, who specializes in sports injuries involving children and adolescents. I wish I had a doctor, or an enlightened coach, like her when I was a teenager. In the spring of 2013, Ohio introduced its “Return to Play” youth concussion law. The law makes clear that any student-athlete must be removed from that game or practice, and, if a concussion is supected, the athlete will not be eligible for a game or practice until he or she has received the OK from a doctor. And coaches and referees must undergo training for spotting concussions’ warning signs.
This is a long way from my experience as a high school football player in the late 1970s. Coaches routinely advised players to “shake it off” after they got their “bell rung.” Head-to-head contact, especially for linemen, was routine in practice. That’s not to say that nothing changed during the years I played the sport. Near the start of my sophomore season, in 1978, the rules for tackling changed almost overnight. Darryl Stingley, a wide receiver for the New England Patriots, was paralyzed by a savage hit by Jack Tatum, the Oakland Raiders’ head-hunting defensive back. No longer did our coaches tolerate the practice of leading with our heads when we made tackles. For defensive backs, like me, we were no longer allowed to hit head-to-head when we came rushing up from the secondary to make a tackle. This change didn’t just protect receivers. It also changed the rules for making a proper tackle—head to the side, rather than head-to-head. Before long, rule changes at all levels of the sport prohibited “spearing”—the use of one’s helmet as a guided weapon, rather than as a protective device.
Football will always be a violent sport, and many parents will advise their children not to participate in it. That said, within the last few years, the frequency of concussions that are diagnosed is probably higher than ever. It’s the undetected brain injuries that are most threatening to young athletes’ future health.