Better Equipment Won’t Prevent Sports Concussions, Senators Told

Sports are an important part of youth culture, but the risks of concussions need to be addressed, former athletes, neurologists and a representative from the Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) told members of the Senate Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill today. 

“I don’t see this problem going away with equipment,” said Dr. Ann McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University. “I think equipment is going to improve this issue, but it’s not going to solve this issue. We really have to address the way sports are played.”

Both former college quarterback Steven Threet and Alexis Ball, a former soccer star, testified that they felt pressured to return to games after sustaining concussions more quickly than they should have. 

“I don’t think brain injury is viewed as a serious issue throughout athletics,” Threet told the panel. “It wasn’t, for me, until I had a concussion that changed what I was able to do in school and on a daily basis.” 

Ball, who suffered 10 concussions in eight years, said she knew the answers to test questions doctors asked and lied in order to play.  

“People have only one brain for life,” she said. “I will never regain the visual memory I once had. … Concussions and brain injuries are not minor injuries. In order to prevent more stories like mine, concussion awareness needs to be more prevalent among coaches and athletes in our society.” 

Recent cases of athletes developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), leading, in some cases, to suicide, brought the dangers of concussions to the national spotlight.

McKee highlighted the suicides of Dave Duerson, a former defensive end for football’s Chicago Bears, and Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania defensive end. Both experienced repeated concussions during their careers and, when compared, their brains showed similar pathologies. 

“We do not know how to diagnose this disease in living individuals, how to stop its progression or how to reverse its course,” she said. “But we can make important changes to prevent this disease from developing in young athletes. These include understanding what a concussion is, recognition of a concussion when it occurs, and proper medical management after it happens.” 

An understanding of equipment and its purpose is vital to preventing concussions, said Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher of the University of Michigan’s department of neurology.  

“Helmets are extremely effective pieces of equipment,” Kutcher told the committee. “What helmets do not do well is significantly slow down the contents of the skull when the head is struck and moved suddenly. Since concussions occur not as the result of the forces experienced by the skull, but experienced by the brain, it is extremely unlikely that a helmet can be designed that will prevent concussions to the same significant degree that they have been shown to prevent skull fractures.” 

The hearing was intended to focus on improper marketing of sports equipment, which Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., highlighted repeatedly. His examples included a mouth guard, a headband and a supplement whose makers all claimed would help prevent concussions.

Kutcher said anything that says it prevents concussions does not “understand the complexity of the issue.” 

The claims can be dangerous because of the confidence that develops when wearing gear that is marketed as “protective.”

“A player who has sustained a concussion now sees this, or the parent sees this, as the answer,” said Mike Oliver, executive director of NOCSAE. “If I put this on, everything’s fine. It’s not only a false sense of security from being protected from the first concussion, but being protected because I just had one and this will give me an extra layer.” 

Educating athletes, coaches and parents is the most immediate way to prevent the harm concussions cause, the panel said.

“Playing quarterback, I had to be out on the field,” Threet said. “If it was shoulder separation, ankle sprain, whatever it was, you know, ‘Shoot it up! I’m ready to go.’ That’s not the case with brain injury. You can’t just take something to get rid of the pain and then deal with it later and let it recover at a later time.”

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