The 2015-16 National Hockey League (NHL) season was one for the books for Pittsburgh Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby, who finished the season with his second Stanley Cup and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for being the most valuable player (MVP) in the playoffs.
The same could be said for Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers quarterback and National Football League (NFL) MVP who finished an impressive season with a trip to Super Bowl 50 in February 2016.
But high performance is not the only thing these elite athletes have in common–they have also both been sidelined by concussions in the current 2016-17 season.
Concussions are in the news – and on the rise
In 2015, Will Smith starred in the movie Concussion, a film depicting Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of neurological deterioration in retired NFL football players. Last spring, after acknowledging Dr. Omalu’s research findings and the link between football and degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the NFL settled a $1-billion class-action lawsuit with thousands of former players. Since 2002, professional sports leagues, including the NFL and NHL, have modified and enhanced their concussion policies in response to both strong advocacy and increasing scientific evidence.
The 21st century can be dubbed the time of “Concussion Crisis,” as concussions in sport have become a very prominent public health concern. According to Statistics Canada, the incidence of concussions in youth is, and has been, rising steadily. As many as 23 per cent of adolescents have reported having sustained a head injury within the previous year.
Many athletes, coaches, parents, and fans still do not understand, accept, or recognize the serious consequences of concussions.
Despite ongoing research, public awareness campaigns, and policy improvements, there remains a need for more public education. Many athletes, coaches, parents, and fans still do not understand, accept, or recognize the serious consequences of concussions. The result is a persisting culture of resistance and neglect. It is a culture that values playing through the pain, “toughening” up, and not letting your team down.
During a campaign speech in Florida on October 12, 2016, now President-elect Donald Trump perpetuated this culture when he poked fun at the supposed lack of toughness of professional football players and “softer NFL rules.”
“See? We don’t go by these new and very much softer NFL rules. Concussion, oh! Got a little ding on the head, no, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season. Our people are tough.” – Donald Trump
In response to his comments, the Brain Injury Association of America issued a public statement re-affirming that a concussion is a traumatic brain injury. Trump has also come under scrutiny by NFL players, fans, and medical experts, for his comments.
Putting things into perspective
As a former varsity athlete who has suffered from multiple concussions, I understand this culture. Concussions are not visible like a bloody nose or broken leg. As a competitive player, you do not want to let your team or coaches down, you do not want to miss the big game or jeopardize a scholarship. You want to push yourself.
Stepping out of an athlete’s shoes, however, I can see why education and awareness are imperative, not only for athletes but for coaches, parents, and trainers. If I had the education, awareness, and experience then that I do today, I would have thought more clearly about walking back on the field.
The structure of professional corporations depends on these youth moving through the ranks – not only the few who will play professionally, but also all those who never will.
We often neglect the reality that professional athletes start as youth, and the structure of professional corporations depends on these youth moving through the ranks – not only the few who will play professionally, but also all those who never will. Concussions vary widely by type and degree, and while we often hear about head injuries in athletes, most concussions happen off the playing field. Thus, awareness, prevention, detection, and treatment strategies are important for all youth – whether or not they are athletes.
How are Canadian governments responding to this crisis?
The Government of Ontario recently became the first Canadian jurisdiction to address concussions through legislation when it passed the Rowan’s Law Advisory Committee Act, 2016 (Bill 149) on June 9, 2016. The act is named after Rowan Stringer, a 17-year-old student who passed away after sustaining a head injury while playing rugby in Ottawa, Ontario. The law mandates the creation of a Committee, whose recommendations to the government are due by September 2017.
Following Rowan’s death, the Coroner’s Jury developed 49 recommendations with a view to protect children and youth from the incidences and consequences of concussions. The Committee is tasked with reviewing these recommendations. They will also focus on how parents, coaches, officials, and the medical and education communities can work together to increase safe participation in sport through greater awareness and better treatment for concussion-related injuries.
Among the recommendations, the proposal for all Bachelor of Education students in Ontario to receive first aid certification is the most important. This proposal includes concussion awareness, prevention, and management. The proposal states that Ontario Bachelor of Education students should also “receive a mandatory athletic coaching course, to ensure standardized training of all new teachers whether or not they plan to coach athletics, and to encourage teacher participation as athletic coaches.” Ensuring teachers receive this standardized education is of the utmost importance.
The Government of Canada, for its part, plans to work on a national strategy to raise awareness among parents, coaches, and athletes on concussion treatment. The federal Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, and Minister of Health are paying close attention to the developments of the Committee’s work.
Although Rowan’s Law is a promising start, we must not get comfortable.
All 50 states in the United States have laws dictating the management of youth concussions – similar to protocols that protect athletes in the NHL and NFL. In Canada, Ontario is only the first jurisdiction to begin to adopt such regulations.
Studies show that concussions are three to six times more likely to be detected in an environment with a protocol in place.
Concussion awareness and education is imperative. Studies show that concussions are three to six times more likely to be detected in an environment with a protocol in place.
The research and evidence is there. We know how to prevent concussions and how to prevent them from getting worse. But there are still serious gaps in awareness. We must translate knowledge into action across the country to give all Canadian children protection.
Julia Maiolino is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Geography and Environmental Studies from McMaster University. Julia is a former varsity-athlete having competed on the McMaster Women’s Soccer Team on a five-year athletic scholarship. Her policy interests lie in education policy, environmental policy and youth and sport policy. When she’s not deep in books, you can find her enjoying time with family and friends or on the field…refusing to hang up her soccer boots.