Concussions in Professional and School Athletes Attract Legal, Scientific Attention

The issue of concussions and other brain injuries in contact sports, from the professional to the primary school level, has received widespread and sustained attention for some time now. In the wake of the settlement of a spate of lawsuits against the National Football League (NFL), media coverage and injury prevention efforts are turning more to minor children.

More than 4,500 former professional football players had entered into lawsuits against the NFL when a $765 million settlement was reached recently. Following a months-long period of court-ordered mediation, U.S. District Judge Anita Brody announced the settlement, which she must yet approve in order for it to go into effect. The plaintiffs claimed a wide variety of concussion-related symptoms, including memory loss, impaired speech and motor control, depression, and mood swings. At least two former NFL players committed suicide by self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the chest and left notes asking that their brains be donated for scientific research.

The NFL also implemented safety-oriented rule changes for the 2012 season, including prohibiting “head shots” and making them fineable, and requiring heavier protective padding. That season, 160 players were diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms, a steep decline from the previous season’s 270 such diagnoses.

Far more pressing is the issue of how to protect children who play contact sports. Over a quarter-million concussions are reported among high school athletes each year. In July, 2012, a Florida law went into effect that requires young athletes suspected of sustaining a head injury or concussion to be immediately removed from practice and competition. After completing a gradual, four-course return to play, consisting of light activity, then moderate aerobic activity, followed by drills specific to their sport, and finally full-contact practice, athletes are allowed to return to competition with a doctor’s written medical clearance.

Concussion is difficult to diagnose, but a commercial software program called ImPACT, already in use by the NFL, has recently been adopted by a number of Tampa Bay-area high schools. The program requires fully healthy athletes to complete a series of computerized cognitive tests before the season begins. Following a head injury, players must post a score as high as or higher than their baseline score before they can return to play. While the program shows promise, it is easily manipulated by players who deliberately score lower than they are able on initial tests in order to get back in the game as soon as possible in the event they are injured.

On the federal level, the Youth Sports Concussion Act was recently introduced by Senators Jay Rockefeller and Tom Udall. If passed, the bill would instruct the Consumer Product Safety Commission to review a forthcoming report from the National Academy of Sciences on sports-related concussions in young athletes. After the review, the CPSC would be authorized to issue recommendations or rule changes for manufacturers of sporting equipment.