Friday, May 20, 2011

Data debate doesn't mean concussions can be ignored

Head injuries have been the biggest focus of CFL discussion this week thanks to Doug Brown's comments on players' life expectancies and other frightening research. Naturally, his comments prompted some backlash, and that's understandable; if the statistic Brown cited about players having an average life expectancy of 55 is accurate, it would be awfully hard to keep players and fans on board with the league without serious changes. However, even if that one piece of information proves not to be entirely applicable, it doesn't mean the league and its players can shrug off the rest of the mountain of evidence that concussions are not only disturbingly prevalent in football, but also have significant impacts on the post-football lives of those who suffer them.

The question marks about the life expectancy statistic are worth investigating, though. Dave Naylor points out that only one player from the 1983 Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts is known to be dead, and that applies to only two players from the 1983-84 Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders as well. That's obviously anecdotal evidence based on only two teams, but it doesn't conform to the mental picture painted by a life expectancy of 55.

However, it's worth noting that a life expectancy of 55 for a profession doesn't mean that most players will reach that age and suddenly drop dead. Rather, life expectancy is an arithmetic mean (or average). Thus, if you tried to calculate football players' life expectancy by looking at only the lives of Chris Henry (who died at 26) and Don Doll (who died at 84), you'd come up with that figure of 55 years even though neither's life was particularly close to that. There certainly are plenty of players who have died younger than 55, including Henry (pictured above with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009), Owen Thomas, Kenny McKinley, Shane Dronett and Dave Duerson, and every one of those deaths (all linked to football and head injuries in one way or another) would bring down that life expectancy.

The case of Henry in particular should terrify everyone involved in football, as his autopsy revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) despite a number of factors that would suggest against it, including that he never sustained a reported concussion and only played a few years in the NFL. If he somehow developed CTE despite that, it's hard not to think that many players with multiple reported concussions and long professional careers are at even greater risk. It's also notable that one of the men whose name was attached to that life-expectancy statistic, Dr. Michael Glueck, still stood by it when contacted by The Toronto Star's Chris Zelkovich yesterday:

"I still stand by those numbers," Dr. Michael Glueck said from his California home on Thursday, referring to an article he wrote in 2006 entitled "Suicide by quarterback - football players dying young."

Glueck said he got the number from a reliable source in the insurance business and believes in its accuracy.

"That's their business to know," he said.

Whether that particular statistic is correct or not shouldn't overshadow the larger issues around concussions, though. In that same piece, Zelkovich writes that there were 50 reported concussions in the CFL last season. That's an average of 0.59 reported concussions a game, lower than the 0.67 in the NFL in 2010, which does seem to back the theory that smaller players, wider fields and different rules tend to reduce CFL concussions compared to NFL ones. However, that's still quite a few reported concussions, and given the macho mentality often prevalent in football, it seems likely that there are others that aren't reported by players or caught by training staffs. Keep in mind that Henry never had a reported concussion and had a short career at a relatively low-contact position, but CTE was still found in his brain.

It's notable that Zelkovich also discusses how the vast majority of the reported concussions are only mentioned to the league, not the public. That's a problem; as Brown told Mark Masters, spreading awareness of concussions is a huge part of the issue. Part of the responsibility there is on the media, and that's why it's good to see so much discussion of the issues around head injuries this week. TSN's also paying more and more attention to how they handle potential concussions during game broadcasts, and that's definitely a positive as well. The media can only do so much if teams and players are hiding concussions, though, and there really isn't a need for that.

I was impressed by the approach the Toronto Argonauts took last season, both publicly announcing that star running back Cory Boyd was battling a concussion and then sitting him for a couple of weeks until he was fully recovered. Other teams might have been tempted to try and hide an injury to their top player and hurry him back as quickly as possible, but the Argos showed concern for Boyd's long-term health. They also demonstrated respect for their fans by telling them Boyd wasn't playing because of a head injury instead of trying to disguise what was wrong with him. It would be nice to see other teams adopt more of that openness.

In general, the biggest issue out there around concussions is how much we still don't know. Bruce Arthur did a great job of addressing that in his National Post column today, pointing out that although many aspects of the CFL game would appear to reduce the risk of concussions, there hasn't been a lot of research that's specifically studied that. It's worth noting that there's an extensive list of former CFL players who have suffered from terrible diseases that may be related to concussions, including Bobby Kuntz, Tony Proudfoot, Jay Roberts and Jerry Campbell, so even if particular statistics like the life expectancy of 55 are debunked, that doesn't mean the CFL is doing just fine on the concussion front. (Also, if that expectancy is proven wrong, it may not be as wrong as many think; this Globe and Mail article finds lots of people willing to bash that particular statistic, but concludes with "Len Teeuws, a former NFL offensive lineman, studied 1,800 players who were in the league for at least five seasons between 1921 and 1959, and found an average lifespan of 61 years.")

It's also notable just how big the concussion problem is, and how many different areas of science it covers (physics, statistics, neurology, biology and others. That makes it highly unlikely we'll get close to a full understanding of head trauma any time soon. By all means, let's do more research on concussions and particularly what we see of them in the CFL, but let's not put off taking action until we know everything.

As I wrote earlier this week, all sports change over time, but that change is often difficult to accomplish, especially if it's going in what's perceived to be an anti-macho direction. That's been the particular case in the NFL recently, where many players and fans have spoken out against the league's anti-concussion initiatives. Here's what B.C. Lions' defensive end Brent Johnson told The Province's Lowell Ullrich on the subject:

"Football, it seems to me, is a very stubborn game. We do not want to evolve faster," said Johnson, also a Lions player rep.

"We are taking better precautions, but I don't know where we are in the evolution of where it needs to be. The more data that comes out, the more it's scarier than you think."

To me, that strikes at the crux of the matter. It's absolutely important to carry out further research on concussions in the CFL, and a crucial part of any scientific research is questioning prior assumptions (such as that life expectancy statistic). If that particular statistic is found to be in error, though, there's still a huge body of data out there suggesting that concussions are a major problem across sports, and that's why leagues are sitting up and taking notice. Even the new version of Madden is going to specifically address concussions. This is an issue that's gained plenty of international prominence, and everything suggests that it's going to continue to grow in importance rather than diminishing.

The CFL is already doing a lot of things right on the concussion front (forcing clubs to report all concussions to the league is an important step, as is bringing in a standard international testing protocol that must be passed before a player can return to play, installing a computer system to track league-wide concussions and working to educate young players about the dangers of leading with the head), but there's still more it could do. A few particular suggestions raised by the players thus far have included altering the rules to protect players in vulnerable situations and reduce hits to the head, and from this standpoint, those sound like good ideas. The league's welcome to carry out further studies, but it shouldn't wait to act until those are concluded. What we already know is frightening enough.

Monika Kramlik Lacey Chabert Amber Brkich Gretha Cavazzoni Marla Sokoloff

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