Beyond ‘Watching for Headshots’ in the CFL

The smelling salts are gone and concussion spotting officials have been added to the field, but how are these changes actually protecting a player’s long-term brain health?

Research released from McGill found that only 28% of concussed CFL players will seek treatment for a concussion. It’s no better in the NCAA with only 1 out of 27 concussions being reported.

Today’s young athletes are now witnessing first-hand the devasting impact of repetitive concussions as they watch their childhood idols struggle to remember their glory days and, in some cases, form a simple sentence. There is a better way to protect the players putting their lives on the line every game.

In the past, toughness was embodied by the believe that if you are not carried off the field, you are not serious about the sport, your career or your team. Players are not dying on the field from a muscle pull, a shoulder separation or even broken bones. They are dying on the field from returning to play too soon after a brain injury. We can prevent this.

The first step in shifting the culture around concussion is to use the term brain injury. This simple change makes it more difficult for coaches, athletes and spectators to brush off a head trauma.

The next step is to allow athletes to heal completely before returning them to the field. Unlike a muscle strain, repetitive brain injuries have cumulative effects, causing irreversible long-term cognitive degeneration in later life. While the CFL and NFL are taking important steps to prevent brain injury, they are lagging behind in the science of getting their players back on the field safely. Advances in neuroscience and technology have made it possible to tailor brain rehabilitation programs to the injured individual, ensuring that athletes are not vulnerable to the cumulating effects of repetitive brain injuries.

Kids copy their role models. If their sports idol returns to the game right after sustaining a brain injury (concussion) so will my son or daughter, because they believe this is what a tough player does. Yes, we need more than additional spotters on the field, but that is just the start.

We need owners, coaches, players, parents and fans saying brain injury is real. We need everyone acknowledging that a physical injury may end a career, but brain injury, can end a life. We need to brain concussion recovery into the 21st century.