Researchers and faculty at Northern Illinois University are actively engaged in helping athletes, parents and…
The game featured at least two instances of players appearing to potentially suffer a traumatic brain injury, but the handling of each differed dramatically.
In the case of Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril, it was a textbook demonstration of the NFL’s intensified efforts to protect players. Moments after he was hit, trainers were at Avril’s side. While he seemed to improve quickly, he was escorted from the field and (as was reported to the 49 million viewers watching the game on television) taken to the locker room for assessment. A short time later, word came down that he had been diagnosed with a concussion and was disqualified for the rest of the game.
“It was a textbook example of trainers and the medical team taking swift and decisive action to protect a player from further injury,” says NIU hearing scientist Matt Wilson, who has studied concussions since 2009. He began studying the injury because it often affects areas of the brain associates with speech processing. Now he is one of only a handful of researchers looking at the cumulative effects of blows to the head, even on athletes never diagnosed with a concussion. He is one of several faculty at NIU doing research related to concussions.
Almost as impressive was the high-profile manner with which the injury was dealt with. The fact that television announcers acknowledge the nature of the injury and reported what was being done, helped shine much-needed light on the injury. Despite extensive news coverage of former NFL players plagued by memory loss, headaches, depression and other issues believed linked to head trauma, many people still view concussions as being on par with a sprained ankle, says Wilson. To counter that misperception, he teams with a DeKalb area neuro-psychologist to educate players, coaches and parents about the seriousness of the injury.
“Knowledge is power, and we try to teach them how to recognize and treat a concussion,” says Wilson. “We stress to players how important it is to be honest with trainers and parents when they are exhibiting symptoms of a concussion.”
That is what made the handling of a possible concussion to one of the championship game’s biggest heroes, New England wide receiver Julian Edelman, so frustrating to Wilson.
Edelman absorbed a helmet-to-helmet hit in the fourth quarter. He looked dazed after the play and stumbled a bit, all things that should have required a mandatory concussion evaluation. Indeed, according to media reports, medical spotters in the press box twice notified the New England sideline that Edelman should be evaluated. Nevertheless, he remained in the game for six more plays before coming out.
Whether he was evaluated at that point remains somewhat murky. The Associated Press quoted an anonymous source saying that Edelman was examined on the sideline by trainers and an independent neurologist – but neither the team, the NFL nor Edelman has confirmed that report. In the meantime, the undersized, overachieving receiver is being lionized for his toughness. All of which perpetuates a stereotype of grid iron machismo that pervades football all of the way down to Pop Warner leagues.
“Most of the athletes I work with see the risk of brain damage as small compared to the potential reward,” says Wilson. “What they don’t realize is that you only get one brain and only one shot to treat it right. If you follow all of the medical guidelines, your chances of a recovery from a concussion are good. But if you go right back out there, your chances of serious damage – perhaps even death -- are much greater.”
For that reason, he hopes that the NFL soon reaches a point, where all potential concussion are handled like the one suffered by Seattle’s Avril.
“Until they do, it will be difficult for people to believe that they are truly taking the issue seriously,” he says.