Although I have written on the dangers of concussions in this space before, the consequences are so dire that it is worth revisiting the subject for my friends in Newport-Mesa.
Although the National Football League is the focus of most media coverage, this is a problem that faces millions of athletes who compete at all levels of collision sports. It also affects the victims of millions of annual accidents. It is the undiagnosed health epidemic of our time, a ticking time bomb. Many of the long-term symptoms may not show up for years. What makes this injury unique is that it affects sentient consciousness – memory and personality – what it means to be human.
I first became concerned with the spectre of this injury in the 1980s when my clients who were NFL quarterbacks suffered multiple concussions. When we visited physicians and asked them how many concussions were "too many" and what the long-term ramifications were, they had no answers.
Intuitively, it made sense that the human body was not designed for the brain to repeatedly crash against the skull. So I held the first of six concussion conferences in Newport Beach in the early 1990s.
We assembled the leading neurologists from across the country so that at least our clients became informed. We proposed taking the head and neck out of tackling, better and more advanced helmets, a neurologist on the sidelines, a standardized regimen of diagnosis and mandated sit-out periods. Not much changed.
Six years ago I helped organize another series of conferences and invited national media. Neurologists and researchers reported that three concussions seemed to be a breaking point. Three or more concussions occasion an exponentially higher risk of Alzheimer's disease, premature senility and dementia, Parkinson's disease, ALS and 40% higher rates of depression.
Much of the damage that has occurred to retired athletes has been obscure and hidden. They are in denial about all health issues. This is an injury that relies on patient reporting, there is no visible cast or sign of injury.
The sufferer may not realize he is concussed or is able to relate his symptoms to a concussion. Since a concussion does not require being knocked unconscious, but rather is a blow to the head or body resulting in a change of brain function, the rate of reporting is but a fraction of the actual occurrence.
We were able to publicize the findings and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acted and convened a physicians conference and issued a whistle blower edict asking players to report concussed behavior by their teammates. The NFL also mandated baseline testing, a cognitive test that is given prior to competition that allows comparison with a similar test given post-concussion. This prevents players from returning to the field of play too rapidly and risking second concussion syndrome.
The risks for adolescents are much more grave than for older athletes. Youthful brains are still in the process of formation and can potentially be impacted for life by a serious blow. It takes the teenage brain much longer to recover from a concussion. They need their focus to attend classes and do homework.
I was told by a high school athlete that he had purposely missed questions on the preseason baseline so that if he suffered a concussion he would not be benched.
Parents must insist on baseline testing prior to allowing their children to compete in any sports with a risk of collision. Remember, this is not just a football issue, AYSO soccer players who head the ball repeatedly have shown lower test scores.
Athletes are conditioned from youth soccer, youth football and Little League to ignore pain. They fear losing their place in the lineup or on the team. They are focused on the next play rather than long-term health. They will not protect themselves. It is incumbent on coaches and family members to intervene for their benefit.
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.