- Rob Lynall,
Certified athletic trainer
|Rob Lynall, ISU athletic trainer, administers a concussion test to Issac Rinehart, sophomore football player. (Photo by Daneisha Goodman / Staff Photographer)|
Two hundred forty-two pounds of linebacker, in the form of James Harrison, slams into Browns’ quarterback Colt McCoy. The point of impact is squarely the center of McCoy’s facemask, as the crown of Harrison’s yellow Steelers helmet savagely connects and sends McCoy to the Heinz Field grass in a daze.
After helped up by the Browns’ medical staff, McCoy makes his way to the sideline. The medical staff and head coach, Pat Shurmur both believe McCoy is alright to return to the game. McCoy wants back in.
“I’m ready to go,” he says.
McCoy, determined to bring his team back, reenters the game, only to throw an interception on the Browns’ final drive. They lose 14-3. The next morning, McCoy speaks to his father Brad, his lifelong football mentor, about the game.
“Dad,” he says, “I don’t know what happened.”
The essence of what makes sports great lies at the intersection of elegance and violence. Our top-10-highlight-reel culture feeds into this, as replays of violent collisions and graceful athletic maneuvering dominate sports coverage and come to shape our cognizance of the sporting world. It makes sense. A perfectly timed open-field hit on an unsuspecting wide receiver is more entertaining than a fundamentally sound punt or a good cut block on the offensive line.
With violence comes injuries. Constantly we are reminded of sports’ consequences when a player tears a ligament or breaks a bone. Injuries like these can be devastating, but they are not worst-case-scenarios.
“You tear up your knee, you have to have surgery, you miss six to eight months,” says Rob Lynall, a Certified Athletic Trainer and ISU graduate student researching concussions in athletics. “With concussions, the worst-case-scenario is that somebody could die if it’s not handled properly.”
Properly handling a concussion is problematic. An athlete diagnosed with a concussion is often told to do absolutely nothing to recover.
“With a concussion, the best thing to do is just rest. It’s literally to do nothing, and that means, if they can, just sleep for the majority of the time,” Lynall says.
The short-term effects of concussions include intense headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, and lack of concentration. Sometimes, these symptoms clear up quickly—within a day or two. In other cases, they can linger for months or years.
For an athlete who’s suffered a concussion, it can be frustrating to be reduced to doing nothing while waiting for symptoms to clear up. Ideally, a concussed athlete should not be reading, watching TV, or doing anything mentally strenuous.
Joe Wanat, a former hockey player at Iowa State University, has dealt with such frustrations.
“About three years ago, I got [my first concussion] in practice,” says Wanat, 23. “I had all the necessary brain scans, and [doctors] told me to have no activity for at least two weeks. It was [frustrating], absolutely, especially because we were going into the playoffs.”
Athletes have trouble coming to terms with not being able to compete and not being able to do anything about it. Often, athletes will convince medical personnel that they are symptom-free and should be allowed to play. Athletes naturally want to compete, especially when a lot is at stake—like a bigger contract, a championship, or a scholarship. Not being able to pursue these rewards is hard, especially if all you can do is sit, wait, and hope the symptoms subside.
In the cases of severe concussions, or athletes with multiple concussions, long-term brain disease is a major concern. A large proportion of new research on concussions has been focused on these after-effects. It’s difficult to make a cause-and-effect statement here, because there are multiple causes of degenerative brain diseases. Lynall believes the relationship between multiple concussions and such diseases is strong.
“There’s a study out there that says if you’ve suffered three or more concussions, you’re much more likely to suffer memory problems and mild cognitive impairment, which is a precursor to dementia,” Lynall says.
In some cases, the mental deterioration from concussions can be extremely severe and life threatening. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is one such condition.
“[With CTE] they’re actually dissecting the brains of athletes and finding a buildup of protein that basically slows down what the brain can do. It’s kind of the same thing that’s found in Alzheimer’s” Lynall says.
CTE is difficult because it can only currently be diagnosed by dissection, after an athlete has died.
“What [researchers] are finding isn’t conclusive yet because it’s still early, but it’s pretty disturbing,” says Lynall about CTE.
Over twenty deceased athletes have been diagnosed with CTE, including former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson. Duerson took his own life at 50 in February 2011, but did so by firing a gun into his chest, so his brain could be dissected for research. Before his suicide, Duerson complained of constant headaches, blurred vision, and deteriorating memory. A Boston University research team found that Duerson was suffering from CTE.
At all levels, sports have begun to feel pressure from the medical community regarding concussions. Rules have changed in the name of concussion safety, like penalties for head-to-head hits in football. These rules are well intentioned, but how effective will they be? Football and hockey are both violent in nature, and totally removing violence from them is impossible.
If it’s inevitable that concussions will happen, it’s imperative the sporting world increases awareness of head injuries. Wanat, who has suffered multiple concussions since his first, admits he didn’t know much about concussions.
“I wasn’t really afraid [of after-effects] until the summer after I had my first three or four [concussions]. I started noticing memory loss and mood swings, and I started realizing that could be a problem. I became a little bit more active in researching concussions to learn more about what I was dealing with” Wanat says.
As it is in Wanat’s case, many athletes are only vaguely aware of the effects of concussions until they experience them firsthand. This approach of “let me play, I’ll worry about it later” is understandable, but it is dangerous.
“One of the biggest pushes with concussions is to educate people,” Lynall says. “[Athletes] have to be aware of the symptoms, they have to be aware of the consequences. Or else, they can hide things or not even know they’ve suffered an injury.”
The push to better inform the sporting world about concussions is an important one. Generations of retired athletes who played in an era of unawareness are now coming to realize that the head injuries they suffered were much more than getting their bell rung. Changing the rules of the games for safety may be unpopular among fans and players, but for every highlight-reel hit, there is a retired athlete who can’t remember why he walked into a room because of irreversible brain damage.
The case of Colt McCoy exemplifies this. McCoy was diagnosed with a concussion after the game, as his eyes were noticeably glazed and his responses to questions slightly incoherent. Although the Cleveland coaching staff maintains that their sideline analysis showed no signs of a concussion, Brad McCoy—a high school football coach—was skeptical.
"I certainly didn't think he'd be out only [two plays]," he said. “It would've taken my high school trainer longer than that to determine if he was OK after a hit like that. If he took another blow to the head, we could've been talking about his career here.”
Brad McCoy was right, but he could have gone further. Much more that Colt McCoy’s career was at stake.