The hits that go unnoticed

It’s unfortunate that in a year that featured some of the most intriguing sports stories to ever surface, the topic of brain injuries remains the most prolific among them.

By now you have seen, heard and – if you’re one of the unlucky ones – felt the impact that concussions have had on the professional sports spectrum. The massive amount of attention by media pundits across the sports community is indeed warranted, for they are the voice of a burgeoning community that has long awaited recognition. Victims and their families, the doctors that treat them and fans that want nothing more than to see athletes back on a playing field that isn’t being filled with dirty play and disrespect.

Measures have indeed been taken to ensure player safety at the professional ranks. In sports where speed and contact are the main attractions, rules have been created in order to enhance the safety of vulnerable players. The NFL, a league that saw its concussion rate rise up 21 per cent from its previous season, implemented a rule midway through the 2010-11 season that made all hits to the head illegal.

On the ice, the NHL brass has been rigorously maligned for their lack of production in enhancing protection for their players. Though they seem to be lagging in their progress, one has to believe that there will be changes.

But, what about the students?

The athletes that don’t get nearly the amount of recognition they deserve are also in the midst of a concussion scandal.

“Our medical team has conducted evaluations on 20 athletes for suspected head injuries during the 2010-11 season,” said Sean Christensen, head athletic therapist for the Stingers.

Among them was Rob Mackay. The fifth-year quarterback suffered a concussion in the season opener after taking a hard hit to the head last season and missed some action due to lingering effects.

Among those effects are headaches, nausea and dizziness and sometimes even memory loss.

Bryan Chiu, a future Canadian Football hall-of-famer who played 13 seasons with the Montreal Alouettes and the current Stingers’ assistant offensive coordinator and offensive line coach believes that the growing problem is certainly one that can be fixed.

“I think it’s a matter of players not being taught how to properly hit,” said Chiu. “These days, players are a lot bigger and faster and they run around the field looking for the big hit, but don’t realize that guys can get hurt.”

There are those who believe that players, especially those who have been playing the sport all their lives, know how to engage in contact and that they simply lack the respect that sports purists believe was once an integral facet of athletics.

Chiu, however, disagrees and sees this as an opportunity to stop the growing concussion problem.

“It’s not so much as a lack of respect as much as it is a lack of emphasis on safety,” said Chiu. “It’s a game that features a lot of speed and guys have to know when to ease up.”

Christensen agrees.

“Education! From the medical community, i.e. what are the signs and symptoms of a concussion and understanding the importance of recognizing and evaluating these signs and symptoms. This applies to both the athlete and the coaching staff,” said Christensen in an interview done over email.

In light of recent events in the professional sporting community, concussions have been the predominant topic as of late, and with good reason.

“I think it’s such a hot issue because it’s happening more often,” said Chiu. “Key guys who play key positions are going down with head injuries and fans are realizing it,” he added.

For Christensen, the concussion discussion has been a reoccurring topic for years.

“Within the medical community it’s been a hot issue for years. Over the last 10 years there have been 3 international conferences on concussions (Vienna 2001, Prague 2004, Zurich 2008). The increased media attention is likely due to the increase in high profile athletes suffering head injuries,” he said.

While educating players may in fact be the main theme among those who are closest to the athletes, one has to believe that a total mindset adaptation of the athletes themselves has to occur.

Those who suffer from concussions may not feel such strong effects until many years after the injury actually occurred. Recently, the world of sports was dealt two disheartening blows when former NHL player Bob Probert passed away due to evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain condition that is caused by multiple concussions, and former NFL player Dave Duerson, who committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest so that his brain can be donated to scientific research on the effects of concussions.

It was discovered that Duerson also suffered from CTE as well as depression.

These two athletes were once young, hopeful and ambitious men who, like most young athletes, chose to live “in the now” and worry about the future later.

Chiu believes that that is a major problem with professional and student athletes.

“As a player, you tend to be very short-minded – you would play now and worry later,” he said.

As former offensive lineman for more than a decade, Chiu has suffered his fair share of head injuries.

“It could affect me down the road, but I’m not too worried about it. There were times where I came back to the sidelines in a bit of a daze, but I never suffered anything major,” said Chiu.

Today’s athletes, especially young collegiate ones, have an advantage over their predecessors. Modern technology and heightened awareness of head injuries has provided our student athletes with the utmost care, and measures to protect them are being taken.

“(Our athletes) complete a complex series of tests and a progressive return to play protocol.  A SCAT form (Sport Concussion Assessment Tool) is completed in the pre-season, after a head injury and during the rehabilitation process,” said Christensen. “Our team doctors are also advised to help diagnose and manage head injuries. This tool helps us track their symptoms as well as their cognitive ability (orientation, memory and concentration) and physical evaluation.”

A revolution of sorts is happening, one that can forever change the way our students’ safety is being treated.

In order to avoid repeats tragic cases like Probert and Duerson, the sports community needs to acknowledge the safety risks and move forward with the medical advancements that are happening every day.



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