Concussions in Sports: Is Playing Hockey and Football Worth It?

Health & Wellness on 05.14.11
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There has been a lot of talk about sports related concussions in Canada over the past few months. Sidney Crosbie, captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins received a blow to the head early this year, and didn't return to the ice this season. Mr. Crosbie is considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best hockey player ever. In Canada, that makes him a Very Important Person, indeed. Mr. Crosbie hasn't been able to shake his concussion symptoms, and there is a good deal of hand wringing and worrying that this concussion may bring an untimely end to what promised to be a brilliant career.

This is of course, also a huge issue for football players. Earlier this year, former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, leaving a note asking that his brain be checked for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The answer was yes, he had it. Quarterback Matt Dunigan was forced to leave football in 1996 because of chronic head injuries. After watching their teenage son receive his third concussion on the football field, Dunigan and his wife said no more football, despite their son's considerable talent.

I understand that these men play these sports professionally, and are subject to repeated blows to the head. However, even one concussion can have devastating effects. I myself received a concussion (not while participating in a sporting event, but performing the dangerous job of doing the dishes) and I can tell you it is truly an awful experience. I had searing headaches for weeks, my short term memory was completely wiped out, something I still have trouble with, my speech was slurred and I spoke so slowly that my kids would lean in towards me while I was speaking as though trying to draw the words out of me. I also had balance problems for awhile, migraine auras and trouble concentrating. Even seven years later, if you tell me something when I'm tired, I can guarantee you that I won't remember it the next day.

So here is the question. Should we allow our children to play contact sports that routinely see head injuries? For many Canadian parents it is unthinkable that their children not play hockey. When they are little there is no contact allowed, but if they stay in the game by the time they are young teenagers bodychecking becomes part of the game. Football may in fact be even more dangerous. Players brains are jostled in pretty much every game they play. One player I heard on a radio show said simply catching the ball from a hard throw can rattle your head.

I never had to worry about this, because my kids were both rowers. I just had to worry about drowning and hypothermia. It's a difficult question because there are many fantastic aspects to playing team sports and it's important that our kids have active lives, but perhaps we should be guiding them into comparatively less dangerous sports such as baseball or soccer. Some parents advocate changing the rules so that there is no contact or body checking allowed, but hockey leagues are loathe to do that. They are in the business of creating hockey players and they say checking is part of hockey. The NHL leadership is also conspicuously quiet about the issue. Of course, with football, contact is an integral part of the game.

So, do you let your child play these sports and hope for the best? Or do you put your foot down and refuse to let them play a game they love? I'd be interested in hearing how parents have faced this issue and how it worked out for you.

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