Is there a concussion crisis? Can you be competitive and safe in sports? What are the implications of Shipley’s no-heading policy in Middle School soccer? Our panel tackles these and other questions head-on.
Q. Why is the Concussion Crisis a crisis?
Nowinski: It’s a crisis because of the seriousness of brain injury and the lack of attention we pay to it. Essentially, we’ve established that we consistently damage the brains of young student athletes through sports. Much of that is preventable and unnecessary, and if we step back and realize that we’re trying to build their brains for the future, it means we have to take another look at how we play sports.
NFL Business Analyst, ESPN
Before becoming a broadcaster, columnist, teacher, speaker, and commentator on the business of sports, Andrew was V.P. of the Green Bay Packers and spent 20 years working with both sides of labor in professional sports. In August 2014 he addressed the United Nations on the subject of concussions. He is the father of Sam ’15 and Max ’20.
Athletic Director, Shipley
Mark is a former Lehigh University lacrosse player and NCAA lacrosse coach. He is Shipley’s Boys’ Varsity Lacrosse Coach and father to Ella ’21 and Sadie ’23.
Co-Founder & Executive Director, Sports Legacy Institute
The author of Head Games: The Global Concussion Crisis, Chris became focused on head injuries after suffering a career-ending concussion in the WWE. The Sports Legacy Institute is dedicated to solving the sports concussion crisis through education, awareness, policy, and research.
U.S. Olympic Silver Medalist and Former Harvard Women’s Ice Hockey Captain
When Josephine suffered a life-altering concussion, she took a year off from school and hockey to recover. She returned to play on the U.S. National Women’s team and helped win silver at the Sochi Olympics. She is studying Cognitive Neuroscience & Evolutionary Psychology at Harvard University.
Q. Why now?
Brandt: The bellwether for all sports seems to be the NFL because of its massive popularity, and this issue has come front and center in the NFL for a few reasons. Number one, there has been massive litigation against the NFL for not doing enough and for allegedly knowing the harmful effects of head injuries. Number two, there have been a number of high profile players in recent years that have had concussions, so the issue gets more and more attention, and people start to wonder about treatment. Number three, in 2009, Congress addressed NFL leaders and was very accusatory, even comparing them to the tobacco industry for their lax attitude towards this issue.
Since that time, the NFL has ramped up their policies, they have ramped up their penalties for certain types of violent collisions, and the protocols—I can say as someone who’s been in the NFL and seen the changes—have improved dramatically. Because of the focus on the NFL, it’s trickled down to all levels—college, high school, and youth sports. So now we have increased attention on head injuries, on concussions, and on brain trauma, which in my mind is a very good thing.
Nowinski: There’s no question that we’re far more aware [of head injuries], so the bulk of the growth in concussions that we’ve seen is because we’re looking for them. Also, kids are playing more organized sports than ever at a younger age. So what we see now in older players may be nothing compared to what we’ll see in kids who start getting banged in the head at five years old.
Q. How do we balance sports safety with competitiveness in sports?
Nowinski: You do it primarily through education. We want athletes to develop resilience, to learn to overcome adversity, and to be able to push themselves to a safe limit. But we also have to teach people what the limits are, and we don’t do a good job with that on brain injury. There’s mental toughness and playing smarter and being more disciplined. And then there’s pushing through bumps and bruises. That’s fine. But we have to know the difference between a bump and a potentially life-threatening injury.
Pucci: At a young age, kids should be taught good habits—how to play the game, how to respect yourself, how to respect your teammates, how to respect your opponent—and to be aware of concussions and their severity—what the symptoms are, and be aware enough to address any concussion issues. Sports can be physical, and you want kids to give their best with a foundation of good habits and mutual respect for all the players on the field.
Q. How can we change the culture of sports to be more supportive of health?
Duncan: I think you can educate and explain to kids, coaches, and parents that you’re actually helping the sport and helping athletes, so that they’re healthier when they’re older and playing at a higher level. You don’t want to get hurt in middle school so that you can never play again. We’re teaching and educating athletes so that they can be better, smarter, and stronger athletes when they’re older.
Pucci: You educate, promote awareness, research, learn more about the consequences of concussions and what causes them, and get the information out there. Everyone needs to realize that concussions are not like other injuries, they’re not something that you should tough out.
Q. Do you foresee any changes in policy at the national level?
Brandt: We’re starting to see changes at the state level. There are now statutes limiting the amount of full contact practice in high school football. They’re realizing that repetitive sub-concussive impacts cause the most damage, and they’re following the lead of the NFL by restricting the number of full-contact practices.
I continue to hope and to expect that the NFL will be a leader for all sports with the constant attention and focus on concussion protocol and that there will be more focus on sitting out and proper recovery. It’s one thing to be tough and competitive; it’s another thing to be at risk.
Nowinski: We’ve seen a lot of really smart changes, and we’re going to see a lot more. Examples include USA Hockey raising the age of checking and U.S. Lacrosse continually increasing the penalties for hits to the head. We’re developing a new sports culture of intolerance to head hits. We have laws in 50 states requiring that no athlete goes back to play the day of an injury. It’s progress, but it hasn’t reached everywhere.
Q. What do you think of Shipley’s current concussion prevention efforts?
Brandt: I have a seventh grader. He’s a soccer player, and I want him to be safe. I want him to be happy and competitive and aggressive and playing, which he is, but I want him to be safe. I don’t think that there’s any need for repetitive impacts to his head, and I believe the science about his neck not being strong enough. I also believe that Shipley should be a leader, not a follower, in this area. I think the attention from The Washington Post and Sports Illustrated highlights the importance of this issue.
Nowinski: I am very impressed with the leadership and staff at The Shipley School. In all my years of work, there have been only a handful of organizations and schools that have said, “We are willing to do anything to protect our athletes.” Head of School Steve Piltch and Athletic Director Mark Duncan have invested so much time and energy into exploring what policies are the best fit for Shipley and then working to get everybody on board. The end result will be more kids doing well in the classroom and even more kids going on to success in higher level sports.
Pucci: I am blown away by the School and the initiative to take this concussion crisis seriously. Not only is Shipley promoting awareness, but it’s taking action, and that’s what’s really going to make a difference.
Q. How do you respond to naysayers of Shipley’s policy in Middle School soccer?
Brandt: There’s no way to convince the doubters that what you’re doing has all the pro-competitive benefits of sports. You want to be safe, and what’s impressive about Shipley is that they’ve listened to the data, and they’ve listened to the science, and they’ve engaged experts like Chris Nowinksi and the Sports Legacy Institute to advise, counsel, and come up with creative ways to be at the forefront without lessening competition.
Duncan: I don’t think that there is a connection between discouraging our athletes from heading the ball in Middle School and their level of play in Upper School, because we’re teaching them proper technique in practice. While athletes are here and under our care, we’re instilling the safest practices at a young age when their brains are susceptible to injury. Right now, research says that it’s safer for high school-aged players to be heading, so they’re going to keep doing it. For the 10 games that a Middle School team plays in a year, it’s not going to affect their level of play later. If anything, we’re teaching better ball control, skill play, and drills encouraging good habits at a younger age, which will help them when they’re older. When you’re in sixth grade and you head the ball, you have no idea where it’s going. We’re teaching them some ball control and ways to trap and handle the ball and redirect it, which is probably more productive than heading when they don’t know what they’re doing.
Q. What has been the reaction to Shipley’s concussion prevention efforts?
Duncan: It’s been mostly positive and supportive. People trust us, because we’re working with the best people in the field. We didn’t just wake up one day and say, “We’re doing this.” We consulted the best people, who are advising all of the pro leagues and the youth leagues on what they should do. We’ve jumped in early, realizing that this issue isn’t going away.