The Concussion Problem

“Concussion” has become quite a buzzword in the last year. Their potentially disastrous long-term consequences have been well documented and reducing hits to the head have become major concerns for both the NFL and NHL. Safer sports should be a priority for everyone. Why then is there still such debate about it?

One of the issues is that in order to reduce the amount of hits to the head suffered in football and hockey, the fundamental way the game is being played right now must change. Any change is opposed by waves of observers, players, and coaches who want to keep it as is. Almost every player says that there is no need to change, despite mounting piles of evidence pointing to the contrary. Wouldn’t it be in the players’ best interests to have a safer game? Why are the few who express a desire for change being attacked and labeled hypocrites? The reason is quite simple. For most, it is the only way they know how to play. We are talking about players who have been playing for decades in a certain way. Younger players are coached by people who have themselves been coached that way. The emphasis is on building a big and strong team to physically dominate and intimidate the opponent. It is an unfortunate cycle, but that shouldn’t be an excuse.

Some purists, opposing any kind of rule change, argue that there are inherent risks to playing and that if you are afraid of the consequences, then don’t play. They use retired players who say that given the occasion, they would play again despite their current health problems as evidence supporting this view. It should come as no surprise that it is what retirees are saying. Saying the opposite would reject their entire life choices and the person they are today. Saying they wouldn’t do it again rejects the countless hours training and all of the sacrifices they’ve made. The debate shouldn’t be over whether to play or not. It should be about what we can we do to make it safer so that everyone can play.

Change is necessary and must pass through a gradual culture change. Both football and hockey should deemphasize physicality and focus on speed, agility, and skill. Doing so would open up the games and give more offensive oriented and exciting games for the fans. The attitude must change as well. Being a “real man” should have nothing to do with punching each other in the face and ignoring injuries. That being said, it is most likely impossible to eliminate all concussions. Accidents do occur and athletes will always have a higher risk than the general public. The risks can be reduced though. Allowing fighting in hockey, not penalizing obvious head targeting, or encouraging head-to-head tackles are counter-productive and shouldn’t be allowed for the sake of tradition. Every kid should have the chance to play if they want. We owe it to them to find a way to make the game safer and enjoyable. After all, what’s the point of playing if you can’t remember you did?

Frédérick Chagnon

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