Brain injuries, like any bodily injuries, are a natural part of life. Unsurprisingly, they occur during car accidents and common falls. However, recent advancements in neuroscience have highlighted just how harmful brain injury can be to overall health and cause lifelong impairment.
So what are policymakers to do about brain injuries that result from contact sports such as football, soccer, and lacrosse? Further, how do they protect those younger than 18, whose brains are still developing, while respecting individual choice?
Growing litigation and state-level legislative proposals in recent years demonstrate that radical rule changes are possible soon. These options include simply collecting data on current athletes via sensors that will inform future legislation, equipment mandates, prohibiting contact during practices, and explicitly banning contact sports for younger people.
Lawmakers Are On the Prowl
This means sports leagues need to be taking a better lead, and working diligently with scientists and policymakers to ensure the sports we love are protected, as are the humans who play them. It also means that policymakers need to know when to slow rule-making to ensure that the best science is available to them.
For example, several states have gone down the ill-advised path of mandating neurologists be on the sideline of football games. This not only does nothing for the athletes, but it costs school systems large sums of money to have an expensive person on the field who is no better at quickly diagnosing a concussion than a trainer.
Other states want to limit how quickly a player may return to practice post-concussion. However, data is so conflicted and the body of literature so young that recommended differences range from three days to several weeks. In reality, this should be an individual-based diagnosis and treatment, not a local or state directive.
We Don’t Know Enough to Regulate
Additionally, governors, senators, representatives, and even universities are calling health policy advisors with increased frequency asking about the slippery slope of mandating what students at all ages can and cannot do during a day. When many schools cannot afford new books, there is no room in the budget for things like expensive upgrades in equipment that are only marginally better at protection.
Further, if we can tell students and parents what people under the age of 18 must wear during the day or what activities they are allowed to participate in, then the First Lady’s food initiative is certainly on the table, adding all kinds of regulation and expenses schools cannot afford.
Yet, as athletes continue to get bigger, faster, and stronger, and training begins at increasingly younger ages to enhance performance, risk of concussion and traumatic brain injury increases exponentially. For youth these often result in difficulties returning to the field and to the classroom, as well as potential life-long impact. For adults, we know that repeated brain trauma can lead to many long-term mental health issues and potentially increased degeneration.
So, while the science itself grows and evolves each day, the one known in neuroscience is that policymakers are not going to sit on the sidelines. It’s time for sports leagues, scientists, and policymakers to get on the same team so Americans make the best decisions to preserve sports and health.