Concussions a focus at AFCA convention

INDIANAPOLIS – Hundreds of football coaches are roaming the vast hallways and meeting rooms of the Indiana Convention Center this week. They’re here to rub elbows, share strategic wisdom and – in the main goal for the majority of the attendees – make connections that hopefully lead to jobs down the road.

As Monday’s session of the 2014 American Football Coaches Association convention kicked off, the future was very much on everybody’s minds. That is, the future of the sport itself, which AFCA executive director Grant Teaff noted, “is under attack.”

Football has never been more popular, but serious issues regarding player safety hang over the game. The recent research on concussions and news about former players’ battles with CTE have coincided with a drop in participation at the youth level. Many wonder if football as we know it will even be around in 20 years, or whether it should be.

Not surprisingly, the people who make their livelihood from the sport want to protect it at all costs. Former Texas coach Mack Brown hosted a seminar called “The Future of Football: A Dose of Reality” but its star speaker was a neuroscientist who countered much of the prevailing wisdom on concussions.

“The benefits of youth football to health and well-being far, far exceed the risks of brain injury,” Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman told the 200 or so coaches and prospective coaches in the audience.

Chapman is the founder and director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. She described herself as a football nut and a former Texas cheerleader who regards Brown as one of her heroes.

Chapman said research at her institute has shown that the brain can repair itself after a concussion, even years after the injury, as long as it is allowed enough time to heal after the damaging event. She has worked with Navy Seals on what she calls “brain-training,” or several hours of strengthening and shoring up the mind’s response time.

“The myth is that brain damage is permanent,” she said.

Early recognition of a concussion is crucial, she said, and then athletes must be given plenty of time to get better and avoid the risk of further concussion. Chapman suggested that coaches treat players with concussions not much differently than they would one with a broken ankle or torn ACL by keeping them sidelined. If so, the long-term problems associated with concussions can be avoided, she said.

“In the majority of cases, athletes fully recover after a concussion, given proper care,” Chapman said. “If you were to read the front pages, you would not believe this is true. But it is.”

Chapman didn’t downplay the risk of head injuries from playing football and said that she initially didn’t want her own son to play the game. But the benefits of football – including improved self-esteem, the lessons of teamwork and exercise – can’t be overlooked, she argued. Rather than a health risk, she called football “health-enhancing.”

“Most [concussions] come from car accidents, and we’re not getting rid of our cars, as you know,” she said.

But coaches still must find a way to deal with concussions, and they were presented with many options in the convention’s main exhibit hall. Throw a stone in there and you’re liable to hit a booth pushing safer helmets or concussion diagnostic and management systems. One such merchant was selling the Catalyst Cryo-Helmet, basically an ice pack for your head, that claims cold therapy can help speed healing for brain injuries. Another company called Brain Sentry makes adhesive LED sensors for the back of helmets that blink red whenever a player incurs a hit of 80g or more force.

“We can’t just keep saying concussions are a problem,” said Neal Lieberman, vice president of sales and marketing for Brain Sentry. “We have to do something to address the problem. Youth participation is down and we have to find ways to get it back up. That’s why we’re all here.”

The AFCA distributed pamphlets to coaches with many of Chapman’s bullet points so they could talk about safety back home with players and parents. The National Football Foundation also has put together a marketing campaign to highlight the benefits of playing football. Dozens of celebrities and business and political leaders have been recruited to film ads touting what they learned from the game. One spot featuring GE CEO Jeff Immelt – who played offensive tackle at Dartmouth – was shown during the morning seminar. In the ad, Immelt says he still dreams about playing football and that the hardest thing about leading an international company is “pretending to give a s--- about soccer.”

Steve Hatchell, president and CEO of the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, listed college football’s growing numbers in areas such as TV ratings and graduation success rates. On the other side, Hatchell said, are people who want to get rid of the game and “concussions have become a weapon by which they like to pound on people.”

Brown, who was forced to resign as Texas’ head coach last month, noted recent rule changes that have been designed to enhance player safety, including the controversial targeting rule that was introduced this season.

“It seems to me there are a few things we can still tweak there, but I saw fewer people leading with their head this year,” he said. “It has made it more difficult to tackle and you have to teach differently, but it has made things safer for the student-athlete. And that’s what we’re all about.”

Teaff implored his AFCA membership to make sure that “everything we do speaks first to safety.” After all, the coaches here have more to protect than just their players. They believe they have to safeguard the game as well.