I attended the premiere of Bell Rung, a provocative documentary co-produced by retired football player Dorsey Levens about concussions in the NFL. Mr. Levens interviewed several players and friends of his who experienced multiple concussions and now, several years later, are feeling the ill effects of these injuries. Many complained of persistent headaches, problems with attention and memory, and heightened emotionality and mood swings in their personal lives.
To many kids, Dorsey Levens and the players featured in Bell Rung are heroes and their words and actions carry an enormous amount of influence. This is important, because all too often they hear their favorite NFL players minimizing concussions as “dings” or “just part of the game.” And when an idol talks nonchalantly about routinely playing through his injuries, this approach to the game can easily become internalized. In contrast, the players in Bell Rung were not shy opening up about their experience with concussions—some claimed to have suffered 20 to 30 over their NFL careers—and talked introspectively about their decisions to play through injuries, their limited awareness of risks, and the toll it may have had on their health. One of the players discussed his reaction to the suicide of NFL star Junior Seau and wondered if he might be heading down a similar path. The film provoked a strong reaction in the audience, many of whom had questions about how to safeguard their own children.
The answers are many and promising: New state laws have been passed mandating concussion education for coaches and other school personnel, and rules put in place dictating when a student-athlete should be pulled from play and when he or she is cleared to return. Youth sports organizations are adopting new system-wide policies designed to reduce exposure—Pop Warner has made changes to the way practices are run to limit amount and intensity of contact, US Lacrosse is exploring headgear options for its female athletes, and USA Hockey has eliminated body checking in 12 and under male players. Kevin Guskiewicz and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina are teaching football players at many different levels of play how to tackle safely using proper technique. The CDC has partnered with several organizations to create free tools designed to educate parents, coaches, athletes, and other health care professionals about concussions. And a number of researchers, educators, and clinicians around the country are exploring new technology that could help identify concussions early and treatment techniques designed to shorten recovery times.
With Bell Rung Mr. Levens is certainly playing his part in keeping kids safe, too. I hope more role models step up to influence a younger generation of athletes that it’s smart to take care of your brain.
Dr. Rosenthal is a pediatric neuropsychologist who is an expert in identification and treatment of children with concussion or mild traumatic brain injury.