If you haven’t already seen Will Smith’s new movie “Concussion,” likely you’ve heard a lot about it. It’s a biographical film about Dr. Bennet Omalu and his battle against National Football League (NFL) efforts to suppress his ground-breaking research about the very real brain damage suffered by professional players. Swept under the table for decades, concussions in sports have a devastating effect on athletes and their families.
As the issue gets more time in the spotlight, players, parents and coaches have a golden opportunity to learn the facts about the correlation between contact sports and permanent brain damage and make changes before it’s too late.
Junior Seau and Michael Keck: The Similar Fates of an NFL Star and College Athlete
Steve Baul Seau Jr., known as “Junior” Seau to San Diego Chargers fans, was passionate about playing football. He began playing in high school and immediately made a name for himself. After playing college ball at the University of Southern California, he was drafted by the NFL’s San Diego Chargers. His aggressive defensive play earned him the nickname “Tasmanian Devil.” He became a football legend. Seau won multiple sports awards over the years before retiring in 2010. Two years later, Seau was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He was 43 years old.
Michael Keck started playing contact football when he was 6 years old. He played defense and suffered from his first concussion at 8. By the time he was a college junior, he had endured more than 10 concussions. He stopped playing football after sustaining a devastating concussion during a Missouri State University game. Unable to study because of failing eyesight and excruciating headaches, he dropped out of college. Keck’s personality changed; the smart, kind man inexorably became abusive and violent. He died in 2013 of a congenital heart condition at age 25.
Examinations of the brains of both Seau and Keck after death revealed that both suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In fact, Boston University professor of neurology and pathology Dr. Ann McKee said that Keck’s brain was the worst case of CTE she had seen in someone as young. Keck not only had CTE, but it was as severe as that found in Seau’s brain. Repeated jolts to the head caused concussions that, over time, led to severe brain trauma in both men.
It Has to Change
The NFL is using a new concussion protocol to stem the tide of long term brain injuries. Unfortunately, many athletes have already suffered multiple concussions by the time they reach the pros. Youth concussions are much more common that most people realize. The real changes have to come in the youth leagues. Does this mean no sports for young children? No. As a parent or coach, it’s within your power to protect children from brain injuries. It can be done. Recognize concussion symptoms. Improve equipment. Change the rules to lessen head impacts, particularly when children are still growing. Change the culture that playing through pain is admirable. Safety should always come first. It’s up to parents, coaches and officials to make it happen.