Concussions & Our Kids

January 14th, 2013

Former NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide last May by shooting himself in the chest.  Some fellow former players believe that Seau chose to end his life in this manner so that science could study his brain post-mortem.

As an NFL player for twenty seasons, Seau endured countless hits to the head.  Although he never officially suffered a concussion in his professional or collegiate career, many suspect that all the blows Seau took to the head over those years took their toll.

An autopsy report confirms this suspicion.  Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  Research shows that at least 30 former NFL players also developed CTE as a result of their playing careers.

Both my sons are huge sports fans and love playing a variety of sports.  My youngest son is tall for his age and has as his coaches describe “soft hands.”  That’s great for athletes because it means he can catch pretty much everything that comes his way.  It also makes him quite an effective football and basketball player.

Last October, he suffered a concussion in a completely non-sports related freakish incident.  By the time we arrived at the Emergency Room, he was crying uncontrollably over homework he didn’t really have and complaining about sensitivity to the streetlights along the road.

At the ER, he was treated by a physician who stood about 6 foot 8 inches tall.  When I first saw the guy, I told my son, “I bet he played football.”

An examination confirmed that my son suffered a concussion.  What happened next surprised both me and my son.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed I’m a big guy,” the doctor began as we both nodded attentively.  I expected he was going to follow with a discussion of where he’d played sports in college or professionally.

“Growing up, everyone wanted me to play football or hockey, and I did play a little,” he told us, “But then I decided to quit.  The reason I quit is that I learned that all the hits you take to the head in sports are really bad for your brain.  It’s a tough thing because sports can be fun, but I don’t think you should keep doing it if your goal is to play in college or professionally unless you think that you’ll never be able to go to college or earn any kind of living any other way than playing sports.”

He continued talking to us for a good 20 minutes about the dangers of playing certain sports.  Football definitely wasn’t high on his list.  In the fog of the concussion, I don’t know if it made much of an impression on my son at the time, but it definitely affected me.

If the initial discussion by this doctor hadn’t bothered me, the following weeks certainly did.  We spent the first week taking turns sitting with my son in a dark quiet room.  Living in a culture where there is constant noise and activity, spending what seemed like endless days in black silence became almost maddening.  Because of his headaches, my son tolerated it probably better than the other members of the family did.

The entire incident resulted in two weeks of missed school and an inability to play baseball or basketball for an extended period of time. Also, my son isn’t entirely out of the woods yet.  He still has frequent headaches that we’re told will just take time to resolve.

Since his concussion, every once in a while, my son talks about playing linebacker on a football team someday.  I don’t say anything.  I figure we have time to make that decision, but I’m really inclined to say no.

Football is my favorite sport, so taking this position pains me (maybe even more than my son).  I guess secretly I’m hoping that by some miracle, they’ll figure out a way to make the sport safe by the time we really need to make a decision, but I know that’s probably wishful thinking on my part.

With the news on Seau, lots of ardent NFL fans are lamenting the idea that the severity of concussions in football could spell the end of professional football.  I have very mixed feelings about that.  I love football so I’d hate to see it go.  On the other hand, I’m struck by what the ER doctor said, which was basically that you should only play football professionally if there isn’t any other way for you to make a living because you’ll likely be brain damaged as a result.

That’s really sickening when you think about it.  If true, that makes us as a society just a better version of the Romans.  They watched the gladiators kill each other for sport.  We’re watching grown men beat each other’s brains out—literally.

As one of America’s biggest female football fans (and I’m not kidding either), I really hate to say this. Given that, I guess I’ll hang on to the idea that we can fix this problem because I think it’s too important not to.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from other parents.  Knowing what we know about concussions, will you still allow your children to play sports where the risk of concussions is so high?