Inevitably, my quest to expose the phonies and the hyper-self-interested gives short shrift to a critical subplot of the concussion story: the science of the prevention of traumatic brain injuries before they happen at all. Even if the ImPACT management system, developed by Dr. Joseph Maroon and his National Football League-connected colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is both effective and on the up-and-up – which evidence suggests it is not – it still only addresses when an athlete who has already suffered a traumatic head injury can return to play. It does nothing about the first concussion.
And though Alan Schwarz of The New York Times is on to something about helmet hype and what he calls the “conspiracy” at the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, I am not the only one who believes his investigations skim the surface of the overall public-health issue and exaggerate the extent to which better helmet oversight can reduce the incidence of multiple-concussion syndrome.
In a January 12 post, “More Questions About WWE Medical Director Joseph Maroon,” http://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/more-questions-about-wwe-medical-director-joseph-maroon/, I briefly touched on something called the Maher Mouth Guard. Mark Picot, an executive of the company that produces it, contends that the one NFL team using it, the New England Patriots, has a strikingly low concussion rate in comparison to others’; that as many as a third of all concussions are transmitted through the jaw; and that the league, in mysterious contrast with the American military, simply refuses to give these facts a fair hearing. I will return to mouth guards and their media coverage in due course. I am not an expert and I don’t want to get caught up in endorsing a single product or approach. For my money, the main narrative remains process: the flow of financial and social benefits, along with the human and societal costs, of our country’s No. 1 spectator sport.
On June 17-18, there will be a clinic in Cincinnati featuring presentations by legendary former strength and conditioning coaches Dan Riley (Houston Texans), Mike Gittleson (University of Michigan), and Kim Wood (Cincinnati Bengals). These worthies believe that the key missing piece is strengthening the neck – or, as the literature for their event puts it, “developing muscular structures that dissipate the forces that cause concussions.” For more information about the conference at Cincinnati’s Clifton Cultural Arts Center, go to http://FootballStrength.com.
The implications of strengthening necks for concussion prevention are uncomfortable for the football economy – a lot more so than conducting a few Congressional hearings on whether the Riddell helmet company failed to adequately footnote the “limitations” of Maroon and colleagues’ NFL-funded research for Riddell’s Revolution model.
One implication is that, if we’re banning kid baseball pitchers from throwing curveballs before their arms have more fully developed, we should be banning kids from playing tackle and collision football. Also, not incidentally, that the cerebrum and cerebellum are somewhat more important body parts to protect than the shoulder and arm.
More on all this in my Beyond Chron piece later this week.