The school of hard knocks

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By John Pawlak

There’s an old joke that goes “Why did the father hit his son in the head?”
The answer is, “He wanted to make his head smart.”
It’s really not that funny, especially when you consider the fact that students do get hit in the head, and it doesn’t make them smart.
Head injuries have long been an ignored subject, and only recently have the dangers surfaced to public discussion. It took Dave Duerson’s suicide to prompt any real action to do more than just talk about whether or not it’s safe to get hit in the head.
OK, I’m not a doctor. I haven’t studied the complexities of the brain. I don’t even know how the thing works.
But my own brain works well enough to understand that hitting it repeatedly isn’t a good thing.
Still, it’s big news when big money is involved. Last year, the National Football League agreed to a $765 million settlement for a lawsuit levied by retired players who were suffering from concussion-related injuries. The lawsuit stated that the league had failed to disclose the dangers of head trauma.
The dangers of head trauma? Anyone out there who doesn’t think that getting hit in the head is dangerous, go run into a wall head-first. Oh, and do it 10 times a day for three months, and then we’ll talk some more about it.
That is, if you can remember how to talk.
Ten times a day sound ridiculous? The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine reported that college football linemen sustain, on the average, more than 1,000 20+ G-force hits to the head per season. A 20+G whack won’t necessarily give you a concussion, but it’s mind numbing nonetheless.
In professional sports, the occurrence of concussions is staggering. The NFL reports between 600 to 700 concussions each year, and those are only the “He’s down and out!” incidents. You don’t have to lose consciousness to sustain a concussion, and the effects of those undocumented concussions may not be felt for years.
But wearing a helmet protects you, right?
Don’t ask me. Ask the 4,500 brain injured ex-NFL players in the lawsuit.
Back in 1994, the NFL commissioned a “scientific study” of sub-concussive injuries to its players. The commission was chaired by Dr. Elliot Pellman, who is not neurologist and who openly admitted he knew little about head injuries. After an “in-depth biomechanical analysis” of the effects of tackle forces on the brain, the NFL’s commission reported (in 2003) that “there were no long term negative health consequences associated with concussions sustained by NFL players.”
In fact, the commission went so far as to say, “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.”
Seriously, only people who have gotten hit in the head many times would believe this garbage!
Sadly, brain injuries hit close to home too.
There are more than 250,000 concussions in high school football each year. When a young adult sustains a head-on block, he can experience over five times the G-force felts during an F-16 fighter jet roll.
Modern body padding helps, but only to an extent. A simple metaphor on the physiology of the brain would be to equate it as a “bag of wet mush.” Being surrounded by a hard skull helps, but all that force has to go somewhere.
If parents could see what happens to one’s brain during a solid tackle, no one would ever allow their kids to play football.
And perhaps the worst dangers of all are the “small” concussions, the ones parents are apt to ignore. These “cumulative concussions” can eventually cause minor symptoms like headaches, amnesia, dizziness, vomiting, disorientation, slurred speech, memory loss, sleep disorders, depression, mood swings, learning disorders, dementia and psychological problems.
Oh yeah, and sometimes death.
In the school of hard knocks, one doesn’t cheer on a teammate by yelling “Break a leg!” It’s far more apropos to say, “Break a brain!”