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Watch Your Head

16 December 2014

I was riding the best I’d ever ridden that particular piece of trail. I was railing it. It was an amazing day on a bike. Until my front wheel dropped off a lip a little too fast. It was a section of trail I’d ridden dozens of times without issue. This time my front wheel landed just before a rock instead of on it. I went over the bars fast and woke up with another rider standing over me and a helmet smashed to pieces. #1

Teeter-totter. No problem. Roll to the top, pause, let it slowly lower, roll off the other end. No problem. I’ve done this before. This time: roll to the top, pause, roll a little too far to the right and fall from the highest point of the teeter-totter. #2

Noon Ball. Rob and I were playing a little one on one as everyone was shooting around and waiting for enough people to show up to call “game on.” I’m on defense, Rob does a little jab step and a bump. Pretty standard for noon ball. Except this time he jab stepped onto my front foot. When he bumped me, I couldn’t pivot back to catch myself and I fell backwards, catching myself with the back of my head on the concrete. #4

Fixed gear. Pouring rain. Railroad tracks. When I woke up the ambulance was there. #6

As best I can count, I’m at six concussions. Concussions have mixed me up a little bit, but big picture, I’ve been pretty lucky so far. I know people who haven’t been so lucky. I know I have to be extremely careful. The next one will come easier with harsher consequences. And it doesn’t get better from there.

I’m pretty sensitive to the stories about concussions. I’ve been personally affected by concussions and people who are very close to me have been affected even worse.

The recent recognition of the seriousness of concussions in sport, especially the higher impact sports like football and hockey, is a step in the right direction. There’s finally been enough research to force these leagues to take concussions seriously, and that’s encouraging to me. Even fans are beginning to realize that players who miss several games, even entire seasons, due to concussions, aren’t being “wusses.” That fan recognition is forcing action on the part of the governing bodies of sports, from the high school level to the professional level, to take action.

That progress is why two separate articles that I read today are particularly troubling.

The first was “Do Concussions Lead to Suicide?” on FiveThirtyEight. I’m generally a pretty big fan of the content on FiveThirtyEight, but the conclusions suggested in this article are troubling to me, primarily because they aren’t really conclusions. Granted, it’s hard to draw conclusions from a bunch of random, disconnected anecdotes that research different things and try to answer different questions. By the end of the article, the author doesn’t seem to remember what she was getting at in the first place. The absolute most disconcerting sentence in the article, though, was this:

“In recent years, the NFL has struggled with a significant public relations problem around the issue of concussions.”

A PUBLIC RELATIONS PROBLEM?!?! Concussions are not a PR problem! Concussions are a legitimate, long-term health problem. True, football does not cause suicide. To try to make that connection would be irresponsible, but to ignore the health risks, and spin concussions as a PR problem rather than a legitimate health concern is even more irresponsible.

The second article came from SBNation. In “Chris Conte said some dangerous things about playing with concussions,” author Rodger Sherman understands that risk. Conte says:

“I’d rather have the experience of playing in the NFL and die 10 to 15 years earlier than not play in the NFL and have a long life.”

Sherman addresses the underlying problems with that idea and the danger in that misconception. This article sums up the current conception of concussions and sport exceptionally well (articles on SBNation are generally good like that). I commend Sherman on offering a simple and concise explanation of the importance of making sure everyone is educated on the long term risk of repeated concussions, and the responsibility of the leagues to the safety and long term well being of their players.

Concussions are not a PR problem. Concussions are a very real health problem. Research has proven the long term damage that can come from repeated concussions. I’m happy to see a better understanding of the issue, and I’m happier to see mainstream news outlets call people out when they say stupid, dangerous things about concussions. For now, if your favorite player is sitting out because of a concussion, be happy they’re sitting, and not risking bigger problems down the road. If your kids are playing sports, make sure they’re wearing the best protective gear you can buy, and if you suspect they’ve had a concussion, get them checked out.

Be smart. Care for others. And watch your head.

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