Superbowl: Safety Shouldn’t be Secondary

With college football signing day this week and the NFL Super Bowl days away all topics football have been circulating in the media. I have read headlines that cover everything from game predictions, Madonna’s halftime show and of course the commercials. The only event I am aware of where more people are more interested in the commercial breaks than the actual game. Regardless, one CNN broadcast that caught my eye was the recent release of Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s documentary “Big Hits, Broken Dreams,” which aired this last Sunday, January 29th, on CNN.

Dr. Sanjay has been observing a North Carolina high school football team’s players and exploring “Second Impact Syndrome”. This syndrome is defined as another concussion that is sustained after the initial concussion has not fully healed. The documentary also highlights the story of a 17-year-old from Kansas, Nathan Stiles. Nathan passed away after a hit on the final game of the season during his senior year. In the end, Nathan was diagnosed with Second impact syndrome. It certainly was a tragedy in the loss of a young man who was not only skilled on the football field but also a straight A student, homecoming king, and overall great kid. But Nathan was able to help and assist in the advancement of the studies of brain injuries sustained by athletes as his brain was donated to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy located at the Boston University School of Medicine, also known as “The Brain Bank”.

Nathan was not the first athlete to have his brain donated for research. As of last October more than 500 current and former U.S. athletes have agreed to donate their brains to research. This research has lead to the confirmation that a disease does exist from the repetitive hits these athletes take. Called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), it is described as a degenerative disease found in football players and other athletes in contact sports who get repeated hits to their heads. Researches have identified the abundance of tau proteins in the brain. This is the same protein found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Players may experience memory loss, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and impulse control problems, progressing eventually to full-blown dementia. Unfortunately, there are many retired sports athletes who played contact sports dealing with these symptoms today.

The good news is now the medical and neuroscience communities can begin to focus on how to prevent these injuries; in particular, identifying a player earlier who shows the symptoms of a concussion and thus being able to prevent a more serious long-term head or nervous system injury.

NFL players old and new have recognized the importance of these studies and are participating in research with the ultimate donation, their brains. Three active players in 2009 publicly committed to donating their brains to help with this research. Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, Seattle Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu, and Arizona Cardinals receiver Sean Morey were the first active players to publicly endorse the studies. It is considered taboo for an active professional player to even insinuate of possible injury as it could effect their career.

What is clear that since the start of the Brain Bank in 2008, we have learned more about these sports injuries than ever before and I am confident these studies can help and assist in the prevention and/or recovery across all types of neurological disorders. It is also great for Plus One foundation as the work they are doing directly relates to the people we touch. But most importantly these studies can empower players, trainers, and coaches to correctly identify concussions before serious injury occurs. As a sports fan, I certainly enjoy the game but also want for everyone to leave the field safely.

Enjoy the commercials (and the game),

Plus One Foundation