“Head Bangers Ball Game: Part 1” – By Ger Sayers
Hello Vault boys and girls, today is going to be part one of a series where we are going to talk about a very popular and serious subject, concussions. We are going to talk about CTE and some very interesting folks. In the next issue, I’ll cover helmets, their designs and the technology they use. Finally I’ll go through the recent rule changes and I will be giving my thoughts on what else can be done in order to help reduce the amount of concussions and head injuries in the sport. To kick us off on a good note, let’s talk about people and their work which I feel is extremely important.
~ Dead Men Can Tell Tales ~
In a former life, I was a Car Mechanic. One part I really enjoyed learning about was Crash Safety Systems. As I studied more on the subject, my lecturer told me to read up on a guy by the name of Lawrence Patrick. It’s not a name most people will know. In fact, most people in the auto industry won’t have that name ready to roll off their tongue either, but if you have been in a car crash in the last 50 or so years, you probably owe your life to this man.
He put himself through serious tests, such as rocket sled crashes, blows to the head and face with what was dubbed a “gravity impactor” (basically a steel rod on a swing) and took heavy weight pendulums to the chest. All of this was done to measure and document the effects of impact on a living human. What bones broke, what muscles were affected and the like was all documented through countless amounts of testing. His tests also included dropping cadavers from different heights to see what effects speed and G-Force had on the human structure.
Through him and members of his team, subsequent students who learned under him in Wayne State Biomechanics Research Centre and others who were inspired by his pioneering work, car crashes are exponentially more survivable than they were before his work. I personally feel that this man should be celebrated as the true legend he was before his passing at age 86 due to Parkinson’s Disease.
In the same vein, NFL players and probably the entire contact sport world need to get on board with the name Dr. Bennet Omalu. Unlike Mr. Patrick, many people will know about Dr. Omalu and his great work, mainly down to the film “Concussion” and the books about himself, his life and his incredibly important work. Through his work as a Pathologist, he discovered the disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE in the brains of former football players. This was a very important discovery for football but through the media coverage it received, his work a has shone a light so bright on the issue of brain injuries, almost all sports has re-evaluated its relationship with the issue of concussions.
The reasons why I link Mr. Patrick and Dr. Omalu is simple, their end goal was exactly the same, to save people. Through the reports Mr. Patrick made about the damage caused to his and others bodies, alive and dead, researchers developed better safety equipment such as airbags, seat belts, glass and a multitude of other technologies which have saved thousands upon thousands of lives. Dr. Omalu may not be detecting issues in his own brain or getting beat into concussions to study the effects on his own body but through his work and his determination to prove his findings to be significant, he hoped to help others avoid the faith as notable former players and CTE sufferers like Mike Webster, Terry Long, Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk, and Tom McHale.
~ Bang, Bang Play ~
Even with the advent of the first helmet in 1893, worn by Navy’s Joseph M. Reeves when doctors told him that another kick to the head could result in his death or developing “instant insanity” and the idea of repeated brain and head trauma had been around since the 1920’s when forensic pathologist, Dr. Harrison S. Martland noted the tremors, slowed movement, confusion, and speech problems in prize fighting boxers, an ailment we know mainly as “Punch Drunk”, it wasn’t until 1994 before the NFL had its first review of the possible effects of concussions in players which is when the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee was set up. It took until 2003 for their first results to be published but in a 2005 paper they released. they came to a frightening conclusion:
“Players who are concussed and return to the same game have fewer initial signs and symptoms than those removed from play. Return to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season. The current decision-making of NFL team physicians seems appropriate for return to the game after a concussion, when the player has become asymptomatic and does not have memory or cognitive problems” – Neurosurgery, Volume 56, Issue 1, 1 January 2005, Pages 79–92
Anyone who has watched the film or read about Dr. Omalu will know about how dismissive of him and his work the MTBI were but the sheer level of denial of between when it was founded until it was replaced in 2010 of all medical opinion about concussions, its link to mental illness and the physical damage done to the brain is mind bending. It wouldn’t be until 2009 before the NFL said that there was a link even though reports and studies as far back as 2003 proving the possibility of a link.
The wrong people were put in charge, such as Dr. Elliot Pellman, a Rheumatologist with no background in any of the Neuroscience fields, of a committee designed to look after head injuries. When he left the post and was replaced by 2 chairmen, one who became known as Dr. No for his constant denials of what was quickly becoming indisputable links between Dr. Omalu’s findings and concussions in football. I’ll stick a link here if you want to read a timeline from PBS to get a taste of how screwed up it was:
~ Brain Fog ~
Dr. Omalu’s work has fundamentally changed how people view concussions and their effects, just like Mr. Patrick’s work in automotive safety. Maybe one day we will take Dr. Omalu’s work for granted in the same way Mr. Patrick’s work has been. On the flipside, one has to wonder, how many players were needlessly put in harm’s way until the NFL decided to get its house in order.
Like the car industry though, the improvements and benefits his discovery will hopefully bring won’t happen overnight. Although rules have been changed, behaviours in the game have been modified and new protocols put in place for protection of players’ health, it will take time for technology to catch up. I will cover the improvements in this area in the next part of this series. Until then, buckle up and drive safe!