Pro Sports Leagues And Mayo Clinic Doctors Address Concussions -- Not A Moment Too Soon

Pro sports leagues are trying to come up with ways to avoid head injuries. Now, doctors at a Mayo Clinic summit have weighed in, too.

Thursday afternoon, Major League Baseball jumped on the bandwagon of sports leagues trying to do something about concussions:

A person familiar with the proposal tells The Associated Press that Major League Baseball is considering a 7-day disabled list for players with concussions.

The new DL could be instituted as soon as next season, the person told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because the proposal is in the preliminary stages.

Frankly, I don't quite see how a shorter disabled list than the traditional MLB 15-day DL is going to make anything better regarding baseball's handling of concussions. And the problem goes far beyond baseball, where physical contact between players is rare.

Concussions are tricky injuries, as NFL players have been finding out in increasing numbers -- you can't see them, and they can have long-term effects. The Bears' Hunter Hillenmeyer, out for the season with the aftereffects of a concussion, says it's all a PR move:

“At some point it’s about whether the rules allow the game to be played the way we’re taught to and it should be,” Hillenmeyer told CSNChicago.com. “If a safety starts pulling off a tight end coming up the seam, he might not get fined, but he’s also not going to be on the field very long.

“It’s so easy to slap a fine on a player when everything else in his football world incentivizes him to make that hit. Not to maim someone but to be as aggressive as you can within the rules of the game.

“If you’re going to blame the safety for a reaction-type play, where it’s clear that he’s not head-hunting, he’s trying to break up a pass but they happen to hit head-to-head..."

He sputtered a little, frustrated at where this was going.

“If you’re going to fine a player for doing what they’re taught to do, then you might as well go ahead and fine the quarterback for floating the ball out there in the first place, or fine the coach for calling the play in the first place.”

That raises the question: was Hillenmeyer "sputtering" because he was frustrated? Or were the effects of his concussion making it difficult for him to express his opinions clearly? Brain injuries have become more and more frequent in sports, particularly football and hockey, because as Hillenmeyer correctly points out, players have been taught to play this way. This week's fine given to the Steelers' James Harrison for his head-first hit on the Browns' Mohamed Massaquoi has only served to focus public attention on this issue. The NFL today released this video to all 32 teams showing what are considered legal and not legal hits. Ray Anderson, the NFL's Executive Vice President of Football Operations, says in pretty strong language that illegal hits won't be tolerated. The video in that link is well worth watching.

It's been brought further to the forefront in a well-timed medical conference being held this week in Rochester, Minnesota -- the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center Ice Hockey Summit: Action on Concussion. Both doctors and a former NHL referee say the league has to do something to end head hits:

The N.H.L. averages about 75 concussions a season, said Dr. Paul Comper, a Toronto neuropsychologist and consultant for the players association.

“In my opinion, really what you should do is get rid of all targeted head hits,” Comper said. He called the N.H.L.’s adoption of its current head-checking rule “a step in the right direction.”

Kerry Fraser, who retired as a referee in April after 29 seasons, said banning hits to the head was necessary.

“The N.H.L. must outlaw head hits,” said Fraser, who criticized an N.H.L. explanatory video showing what the league called “an example of a legal shoulder check to the head.” In the clip, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger uses his shoulder to strike the Rangers’ Jody Shelley in the head, snapping Shelley’s head.

Players in the NHL and the NFL wear helmets. The helmets do protect the head from injury to some extent -- and the helmets are better at doing that than they were decades ago -- but for the very same reason, helmets are also available to be used as a weapon. There have already been some suspensions in the NHL this season for this sort of thing, including the two-game ban given to the Blackhawks' Niklas Hjalmarsson for his hit on the Sabres' Jason Pominville; Pominville suffered a concussion and is still out. He's one of three players suspended so far this year, including the Coyote's Shane Doan. The well-respected Greg Wyshynski, known as "Puck Daddy", says you can't have it both ways:

This is a statement to the players, as loud as any the League has made this season: Even the seemingly benign blindside hits are on the radar. The game has changed. Don't start screaming "protect the players and their fragile brains!" and then start bitching when the NHL is attempting to establish this rule as a deterrent.

Whether it works on not is on the players; and hopefully when Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller is declaring that dangerous hits can be forced out the game by the NHL establishing precedents, then he's talking about this sort of suspension.

But it's more than just head hits these leagues have to concern themselves with. It's the culture of violence itself that many players in the NFL and NHL seem to glory in -- Hillenmeyer hinted at this when he talked about "the way we're taught to play the game". Going beyond that, the Mayo Clinic attendees made further recommendations for change in sports culture:

The conference also strongly urged youth hockey officials to delay the age at which body checking is introduced to 13, two years later than the current age across the United States and in some provinces in Canada.

Dr. Carolyn Emery of the University of Calgary contrasted the concussion rate among 11- and 12-year-olds in Alberta, where body checking is allowed at that age, and Quebec, where it is not. In a study of an equal number of players, the Alberta players sustained four times as many concussions.

She estimated that if Alberta moved back the age, the 9,000 11- and 12-year-olds playing hockey there would sustain 300 concussions a year rather than the current 700.

“The evidence is irrefutable that delaying body checking until age 13 has significant benefits to the health of young players,” Emery said of her four-year study.

The conference also recommended banning fighting at all levels of hockey, including the N.H.L., where Comper said fights result in 6 percent of reported concussions. But there seemed little prospect of that.

The last is the most important thing, I think. While hockey and football are both violent sports, and intimidation of your opponent is something both necessary and desirable to win, that should be limited to what's within the rules. If players are being taught that fistfights are necessary in hockey games, or that blindsiding your helmet into another player's body or head will help you win in either sport, the entire culture needs to be revamped.

Or we're going to wind up with entire generations of players of these sports with brain injuries, and the sports themselves will be no better than street brawls. Is it worth it to see these types of injuries just to satisfy the bloodlust of the paying fan or the home TV viewer? Does someone have to be killed on the field before these sports leagues clean up their acts?

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