Hollywood would have us believe that Dr. Bennett Omalu (portrayed by Will Smith in the newly released film, Concussion), who fought against the National Football League's suppression of research on concussions, was a pioneer in the war on head injuries in sports. While Omalu made a significant contribution to the dialogue about this national scourge, the true pioneer in the effort to eliminate athletics-related concussions was the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
The effort to address head injuries in sports and take proactive steps to protect athletes from serious injuries dates back to 1893, when the first leather helmet for football was worn by a player in the Army-Navy game.
The NCAA (which was first known as the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States) began to address the need to improve safety standards for college athletes, especially catastrophic head injuries in college football, as early as 1906, when it instituted changes to football playing rules with the goal of moderating the brutal nature of collegiate football. The NCAA published its first Football Rules Code in 1916, and the organization has been pursuing safety standards to protect athletes from traumatic head injuries ever since.
Most recently, in 2014, the NCAA and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) formed an historic partnership to conduct the largest research study of concussion in sports ever attempted--a study of male and female student-athletes at twenty-one universities, including the four military service academies.
The study seeks to answer three questions central to concussion research:
• What happens between the moment the concussion occurs and the time of recovery?
• Do injured athletes' brain cells recover at the same pace as their outward symptoms suggest?
• What are the long-term effects of concussion?
The research team hopes that this three-year initial study will lead to long-range analysis and tracking of athletes, with the goal of becoming concussion's equivalent of a pioneering study that examined the causes of heart disease: the Framingham Heart Study.
To date, more than 16,000 student athletes from several contact sports are participating in the study, with an estimated 37,000 to be enrolled over the course of the three-year analysis. The researchers have studied nearly 500 concussions so far, thirty percent of which occurred among female athletes. By any measure, this is the most extensive analysis of concussions in intercollegiate athletics history.
And have no doubt about it: concussions are occurring at epidemic levels. NCAA data show that college athletes suffered an average of 10,500 concussions annually over the past five years, of which approximately 3,400 occurred in football alone. Department of Defense data reveal that American service members have suffered more than 320,000 brain injuries since 2000, and more than eighty percent have occurred outside of combat. Even recreational concussions have skyrocketed, with an estimated 1.6 million to 3.8 million concussions occurring annually nationwide.
Clearly, this kind of broad-based concussion study is necessary, and the project reflects the NCAA's historic track record of proactive leadership on the matter of head injuries.
The NCAA has come a long way since the leather helmet days of 1893, and fortunately for us all it continues to lead the effort to understand and prevent concussion among our student athlete s--and, by extension, among all athletes.
Note: The data in this column were provided by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.