Football concussions are a hot topic. Former pro football players are suing the NFL, alleging officials knew more than they were letting on. Medical advances are better showing the specific impact of multiple concussions. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta a year ago began exploring the topic after talking to a neighbor.
The result: an hour-long special airing Sunday at 8 p.m. on the subject called “Big Hits, Broken Dreams.” He screened it before athletic directors and health practitioners at Midtown Art Cinema Tuesday night.
“As a neurosurgeon, I’ve treated this issue,” he told me after the screening. “We’re still learning about the long-term ramifications.”
Originally, he thought the hour would be heavily science based. But the special took on a more personal feel after producers spent this past football season at Junius H. Rose High School in Greenville, N.C., where a player in 2008 died after head injuries.
High school student Jaquan Waller suffered what is known as “second impact syndrome.” He was hit during a game just two days after a concussion during practice. After the fact, it became clear Waller had not fully recovered from that concussion. In fact, he hadn’t even been diagnosed with a concussion at the time and was never treated by a doctor.
Awareness of concussion issues has grown since 2008. The special notes that nearly half of high school football players suffer from concussions any given season. About 35 percent get more than one.
After Waller’s death, the high school hired athletic trainers (grad students from a local university) who track injuries and recommend when a player should or should not play. This is not a perfect system. Many players will lie about injuries so they can keep playing. One counterpoint: players at this high school are given a base-line computer brain test and before an injured player can return to the field, they are given the test again to see if there are any residual effects.
The coach Todd Lipe has changed his approach. During practice, he reduces direct contact. “I want to save my kids for games,” Lipe said during the special.
Gupta’s special notes that for years, the impact of concussions was more anecdotal. Now there is greater understanding how much more dangerous concussions can be for high school players, whose brains are still developing.
Gupta talks to A.J. Flores, one of Waller’s teammates, who had six concussions before he was forced to quit the sport. He suffered from mild traumatic brain injury, which included headaches and emotional irritability.
Coy Wire, a former linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons until 2010, watched the special at Midtown Art Cinema. During a post-screening panel, he said as he learned more about the impact of concussions, he has become more nervous about his post-football future.
“Former players are committing suicide because they’re getting dementia,” Wire said. “A lot of former players are hurting badly. We have to look at this issue very seriously. For me, it’s about education and awareness, especially for a youth and high school level. We need to make changes in thinking about concussions. When players suffer ankle or knee injuries, they take cortisone and Tylenol to mask the pain. Later, they may need to get knee replacement surgery. The problem with head injuries is you can’t get a brain transplant later.”
“Big Hits, Broken Dreams,” 8 p.m. CNN, January 29
Need more information about concussions? The CDC has a site.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk