Football: Concussion Watch—Season Three

Sep 24, 2014, 1:12 PM

Frontline, the Public Broadcasting Service documentary series, has a unique football stats blog, Concussion Watch, which is now in its third year. The blog tallies—game by game—the number of National Football League (NFL) players sidelined by a possible concussion and how soon they return to play.

Based on tracking for the last two years, the blog predicts that 150 players will suffer concussions during the current season, which in many cases could lead to lifetime debilitating problems. This is despite new playing rules and ever-evolving helmets.

The impact of concussions on the players’ heath and lives is startling. Based on Concussion Watch data, 306 players have suffered a combined 323 concussions over the past two seasons. In half of the cases where a concussion occurs, players return to the field without having missed a single game. According to the blog, although there’s no standard recovery time for a diagnosed concussion, guidelines developed by the American Academy of Neurology and endorsed by the NFL Players Association indicate that athletes are at the greatest risk for repeat injury in the first 10 days after a concussion. And the more head injuries a person suffers, the more likely they may be to develop complications later on.

In fact, the NFL is due a decision by mid-October from thousands of league retirees on whether they will accept a proposed settlement in a class-action concussion case brought by more than 4,500 former players. Papers filed in the case show that the NFL expects more than thirty percent of all retired players to develop some form of long-term cognitive problem—such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia—in their lifetime as a result of head injuries suffered during games. During the preseason and the first week of official play, 15 players suffered head injuries and 12 have already returned to their positions.

According to Concussion Watch, a number of companies are working on helmets that might prevent severe head injuries or use sensors to detect whether one has occurred and alert coaching staff electronically.

Attention to youth sports concussions is also returning with the new sports season and will be the focus of a key session at the National Public Health Law Conference in Atlanta next month. All fifty states and the District of Columbia have passed laws aimed at preventing concussions, and those laws are being refined further as research highlights best practices, according to Kerri McGowan Lowrey, JD, MPH, a senior staff attorney with the Network for Public Health Law who will moderate the session on youth sports and public health law.

“Much attention has been paid to changing the culture of sports, particularly youth sports, away from a gladiator mentality to one centered on player safety,” she said.

According to Lowrey, at least 17 states have made substantive changes to laws governing youth sports since they were originally passed, and more are likely to follow suit as best practices and results of policy evaluations emerge. She said the changes fall into three main categories:

  1. Expanding coverage to include more than just youth football leagues, such as cheerleading and private schools.
  2. Strengthening current requirements, such as having stricter return-to-play criteria and requiring more education and training for coaches and players.
  3. Adding more and stronger primary prevention regulations aimed at preventing concussions.

Attention is also growing for youth sports injuries beyond just concussions. For example, the Taylor Haugen Foundation donates “rib shirts” that can protect young athletes from injuries to the spleen, liver and kidneys. Taylor Haugen was 15 when he died a day after his liver was crushed during a play in a football game.

>>Bonus Content: Read a previous NewPublicHealth interview with Kerri McGowan Lowrey.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.