Sports culture encourages athletes to play through pain. It romanticizes toughness, grit and perseverance. That culture also breeds the mindset that a broken bone or a torn ligament will heal, but the chance to compete in sports will be gone before you know it.
When it comes to a concussion, the damage sports cause isn’t visible. It’s always been something that, according to the culture, is “just a headache” and can be played through.
But brain injuries don’t heal like other injuries. When people receive multiple concussions, they put themselves in danger of long-term neurological issues.
According to a study conducted by a team of Johns Hopkins University specialists, there is evidence that accumulated brain damage in former National Football League players can be linked to memory loss that the subjects had decades after they stopped playing football.
Additionally, in 2013, the PBS documentary series “Frontline” teamed up with reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada to produce “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”
The two-hour film took an extensive look at traumatic brain injuries, talking to doctors, activists, former players and the families of former players who have passed because of brain damage.
This issue isn’t just in the NFL, though. It’s an issue here on Elon University’s campus, too.
Emily Williams was hired by Student Health and Wellness in fall 2014 to be the athletic trainer for Campus Recreation’s club sports teams.
In her first full year on staff, she diagnosed 18 concussions. That’s 18 injuries to the brain that, before Williams was hired, would probably have been poorly dealt with — and students may have continued to play through the injury.
The sports culture that encourages athletes to play through a concussion is a massive problem. I know this firsthand because those long-term issues could be happening to me.
I had one officially diagnosed concussion in high school. It’s more than likely that the one diagnosed concussion came from trying to play through one head injury and receiving another just a few days later. I didn’t go to the trainer and get diagnosed until after the second blow.
I probably had two or three more go undiagnosed when playing sports recreationally. I never took myself out.
Instead, I said to myself, “Shake it off,” and, “You will be good in a second.” I didn’t have any issues in the short term, and never thought much of the repeated blows.
But a month ago, I started getting headaches again. They came without any premonition or a known cause. It quickly brought back the memories of my previous concussions. It made me wonder if I had made a mistake when I didn’t stop playing after a blow to the head.
Now, as I deal with the headaches and try to figure out why they’re happening, I can’t help but think that I indirectly caused this through my previous indifference.
By not taking the blows to the head seriously before, I’m being forced to take them seriously now. Sports culture needs to, too.