Many sports carry risk of concussion

Conclusion of a two-part story

AnotherViewsquarePBS’ FRONTLINE for the last couple of years has been tracking concussions each week suffered by NFL players. The program recently reported that 91 former players were tested for brain disease and all but four tested positive, but the tests took place after the players had died.

U.S. Veteran Affairs Department and Boston University researchers also found chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE in 96 percent of NFL players they examined and 79 percent of all football players, states the FRONTLINE report that aired last month.

Dr. Jonathan Finoff
Dr. Jonathan Finoff

Dr. Jonathan Finoff of the Mayo Clinic pointed out during an August NABJ panel discussion on concussions and other head-related injuries in sport, “You’ll find structural [damage] with all these concussions, and it can be both permanent and cumulative.” The Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx team doctor was joined on the panel by former NFL player Vonnie Holliday, retired soccer goalie Brianna Scurry, and Pop Warner youth football official Jon Butler.

“When I played football, I didn’t experience any [concussions],” said Holliday, who
played 15 pro seasons.”

Finoff defines a concussion as “when your head gets shaken around, and your head is like Jell-O.  As [the brain] gets shaken, the outer part moves in a different velocity than the inner part, and it stretches the tendons between them.” The nerves in turn get stretched, “and they stop functioning temporarily.

“Depending on which nerve gets stretched, that’s what symptoms you get,” which can include headaches, dizzine

“The old school game with the big hits has gone away,” said retired NFL player Vonnie Holliday.
NFL player Vonnie Holliday

ss or loss of consciousness, “but there is actually some structural injury with every single concussion,” stated Finoff.

As a result, medical experts say that repeated hits to the head can later lead to memory loss, depression and dementia. Are mainstream and other media who rigorously cover the league complicit with pro football in glossing over the players’ long-term health and even premature deaths after they quit playing football?

But concussions can occur in other sports as well. “As soccer players, we use our heads all the time every day,” said Scurry, who played soccer for 15 years. “I suffered two concussions that were documented. Unfortunately my third, which happened in April 2010 when I was playing in a club team game as a goalkeeper… I was going for a low ball and the opposing player hit the side of my head with their knee.

“That was the last game I played,” said Scurry. “Since then I have had a difficult time. My recovery took years. It also took a lot of time to find the right doctor to get the right help to figure it out.”

Brianna Scurry
Brianna Scurry

Soccer and football have similar cultures, said Scurry, who pointed out that an estimated 100,000 soccer players suffer concussions each year. “We had a culture that you just dealt with it. You never want to come out of the game. You could be on the ground bleeding and say, ‘Yes, I’m fine coach.’ That’s how we went about it.”

“Coaches’ education in helping to reduce concussions” is important, especially in youth sports, said Butler. “We were the first national organization in 2010 to pass our own concussion rule. Any head or neck injury, the player must be removed from participation and can’t return to participation until signed off on by a medical professional.”

“Concussions happen more frequently in contact sports,” said Finoff to the MSR after the panel discussion. “Some of those contact sports are not football. Basketball has limited contact, but you definitely can get a concussion with basketball; but you don’t tend to hit your head.

“Women have a higher risk of concussions, and when they do sustain a concussion, it takes them longer in general to recover. It’s a more significant injury to women, and we don’t know exactly why that is.”

“I love conversations like this,” said Scurry. “I’m a huge advocate of education. There’s the safety aspect, and we need to evolve. We have to learn how to play a sport safer.”


More on Brianna Scurry in next week’s “Another View.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to