Concussion has been a major talking point around contact sports, especially Rugby Union and American Football, but why?
There have been a number of rule changes in Rugby Union trying to protect the players, the most debated being the rule that changed the line of a high tackle to above the armpit line, rather than above the shoulders. Nigel Melville, the RFU’s Director of Professional Rugby, said that these rule changes would “benefit both the ball carrier and the tackler”; yet, the only reason he has changed the rules is because of high levels of concussion in rugby, accounting for 25% of injuries during play (RFU, 2018). This might lead some to pose the question - is there an underlying reason for the sudden focus on concussion?
A film called Concussion was released in 2015, directed by Peter Landesman and starring Will Smith. It tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in retired NFL players. The stretching of the brain, when a concussion is sustained, and not returning back to its original place causes this disorder and has proved to have some serious consequences. Mike Webster, who played as a centre for the Pittsburgh Stealers between 1974 to 1990, is estimated to have been through the equivalent of “25,000 car crashes” (Mike Powell, 2018). He was never officially diagnosed with a concussion, which has been proven to have caused him to be affected by CTE.
During his career as an NFL player, he used to return home for dinner and read his children bible stories at night. However, a couple of years after he retired, he started to not come home - no one knew of his whereabouts. It was later confirmed that he admitted to his children that he used to sit on the side of the freeway in his car because he could not remember where he lived; a first red flag signalling that something was not quite right. He also went through a divorce, lost his house, went broke, became homeless and became severely depressed. Yet, one of the most worrying pieces of information that his children gave was that Webster had purchased a standard police taser gun to shock himself to try and contain his uncontrollable shaking. Webster later died of a heart attack in 2002.
The death of Webster and the suicide of NFL legend Andre Waters, also found with CTE, kick-started ex WWE wrestler, Chris Nowinski, suffering from recurrent concussive symptoms, to set up ‘The Concussion Legacy Foundation’. It looks at the brains of retired athletes to investigate the causes of and ways to prevent CTE. Nowinski found that out of the first 111 brains of American Football players they looked at, 110 of them had CTE, showing just how frequent and unrecognised CTE is.
Alongside the effects that CTE can have on your mental health, there has been research showing that recurrent concussions might make you more susceptible to depression. Guskiewicz et al (2007) used a sample of 758 retired American Football players with a history of concussion and found that 11.1% of them had been clinically diagnosed with depression. Guskiewicz compared the results of this sample to NFL players who had no history of concussion and found that if you suffer one or two concussions then you are 1.5 times more likely to suffer from depression. But, if you suffer 3 or more concussions then you are 3 times more likely to suffer from depression.
So, to answer the question of why it has been a big talking point around contact sports, concussion can cause mental illness like depression and more serious disorders of the likes of CTE.
Image sourced under the Creative Commons license