The New American Verb: To Concuss


By Gary L. Welton



Of course, it’s not a new verb; it’s in older dictionaries. I have been hearing it much more frequently, however, and I am becoming alarmed.

We as a society are much more aware of the risks of being concussed, and we have developed strict and cautious protocols, whereby individuals having been concussed are told to avoid physical exertion and to limit activities that require thinking and mental concentration, such as schoolwork. Some have been told to stay home from school for weeks in order to facilitate their recovery.

It is not surprising that a major risk factor of being concussed is participating in a high-risk sport, such as football. Another major risk factor is having been previously concussed.

I am a small man, and my boys were small boys. Participating in football was never an interest for any of us. Nevertheless, I readily admit that I love to watch the game. I have never participated in the new betting arena of fantasy football, which has only increased the popularity of the sport. I follow college football somewhat, but only after the World Series is in the history book. I do, however, watch a fair amount of the National Football League. I live in Western Pennsylvania, the home territory of the Steeler Nation. Yet, I often feel guilty for watching and enjoying the abusive action on the gridiron. To what extent are we killing brain cells when these men are concussed?

As recently as 2009, the NFL was still arguing, through the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, that no NFL player had experienced chronic brain damage from repeat concussions. This spring, however, they negotiated a billion dollar settlement with former players who had sued over past head injuries.

Many former NFL players chose to donate (at death) their brains for scientific research. The recent report is that 87 of 91 brains showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This does not imply that 96 percent of football players have CTE, as the sample was not randomly selected. It is likely that former players without noticeable brain fog would not choose to donate their brains. Nevertheless, these numbers are staggering and concerning.

The good news is that the NFL is no longer spinning about the risk of being concussed, and is instead encouraging open discussions. NFL rules are continually evolving, seeking to add new protections. These new rules seem to help, to some extent, as the number of concussions in the NFL in the past two seasons has fallen about 30 percent.

Even though the NFL has shown some financial concern, and has adjusted some rules, the fact is that football is a dangerous game and will continue to cause some serious injury, injury among adults who are paid millions of dollars because of their unique skills, their short playing career, and their physical risks. These men now know the nature of these risks, and some are opting to retire after very short careers rather than exposing themselves to severe physical damages.

That still leaves me concerned about these men, but I am more concerned about our developing children. At what age should children start to play tackle football?

Given that concussions are so serious that doctors prescribe that we cease mental effort and interrupt our schooling after being concussed, there must be some age at which it is too young to expose kids to this risk. Given that our brains continue to develop during the childhood years, there must be some age at which it is too young to expose kids to tackle football.

When I started searching the web for children’s tackle football, I was shocked to see leagues starting at age 5. Is the 5-year-old brain sufficiently developed such that the risks of being concussed are manageable? Is the 5-year-old brain sufficiently educated such that the risks of long interruptions in schooling are justified?

According to the Brain Injury Association of America, brain injuries have a more devastating impact on a child (and the developing brain) than a similar injury has on a mature adult. The cognitive challenges include deficits in memory, concentration and attention span, planning, writing, reading, and judgment. These cognitive effects can create lifelong challenges in their abilities to think, learn, develop, and mature.

Is there a good reason for 5-year-olds to risk their future development? Are there not safer, more reasonable ways to encourage athleticism and to develop talent? I encourage our trainers and researchers to gather data to study the question, “At what age can kids begin to play tackle football without exaggerated physical risks?”

I suggest that age 5 is too young, but we need data to make an informed decision.

Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.

By Gary L. Welton

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