Traumatic Brain Injuries and Sports

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In the United States today, there are more than 20 professional sports leagues, many of which contain dozens of teams.  The NFL is comprised of 32 teams, while the NBA adds another 30.  Between pro-league basketball and football alone, that’s already 62 teams and hundreds of players.

Whether professional or amateur, the main factor that separates all of these athletic activities from non-athletic activities is hard physical work.  When that hard physical work combines with competition, aggression, physical mass, hard objects flying through the air at high speeds, the pressure to perform, and matters of sheer chance and probability, the potential for injury shoots through the roof. While an injury to the knee or the shoulder can ruin an athlete’s career, these conditions are very seldom life-threatening.  But when an injury damages the head — and within it, the brain — the consequences can be far more dire than early retirement.  In this blog entry, our traumatic brain injury lawyers examine the troubled relationship between traumatic brain injuries and sports.

What is a Traumatic Brain Injury?

It goes without saying that athletes can be injured in hundreds of ways.  Anyone who’s ever been through the American public education system has probably visited the nurse’s office at some point following a dodgeball to the face or a twisted ankle in gym class.

But while bloody noses and limping gaits may be unpleasant, their severity absolutely pales in comparison to what pro-grade athletes endure every season.  Torn ligaments, shattered kneecaps, deep bruising, eyes swollen completely shut — athletes and their fans accept these nasty drawbacks as part and parcel of multi-million dollar contracts.  More than one person parked in front of “the game” has commented that they would happily subject themselves to a few broken bones if they could rake in that sort of paycheck every year.

But torn ligaments aren’t even close to the worst of it.  Traumatic brain injury is a far more sinister type of injury.  In fact, TBI is probably the worst sort of injury anyone can endure, athlete or not.  The problem is, athletes — particularly those participating in certain sports — are at a far higher risk for TBI than the average layperson.

But what is traumatic brain injury?

According to the Brain Injury Association of America, TBI is defined as any change in your brain function which was caused by a blow to the head.  Unfortunately, these are never positive changes.  In this context, any change to brain function is indicative of damage — and sometimes, that damage can lead to death.

Concussions in the NFL

TBI is the result of force applied to the head.  This could be a blow from an ill-timed hockey puck, a poorly-aimed basketball, or the result of simply stumbling on the field.  But while any sportsman or -woman can incur TBI, some are at higher risk than others.  In recent years, widely read and highly respected publications like Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN Magazine have all honed in on the same, increasingly controversial issue: rampant, deadly concussions in the NFL.

While the phrase “traumatic brain injury” is often confined to doctors’ offices and hospital wards, the average 10-year-old has heard of concussions.  A concussion is a common type of TBI in which a blow to the head is forceful enough to cause temporary unconsciousness.  As concussions accumulate — as they are prone to doing over years of playing football — they become increasingly deadly.

According to NFL injury reports, there were over 152 concussions in 2013 alone.  The positions most vulnerable were cornerbacks, wide receivers, and safeties.

On the physical side, concussions can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, and problems with balance.  On the mental side, side effects include inability to concentrate, retain information, and memory issues.  On the emotional side, concussion sufferers report anxiety, depression, and inexplicable bouts of anger.

TBI’s #1 Victim in the Sports World May Surprise You

Football players are infamous for their susceptibility to concussions and other serious brain injuries.  So are boxers, who after all dedicate their entire careers to doling out and taking hard punches, sometimes to the head.  During a 1962 match, welterweight Emile Griffith punched Benny Paret into a coma (reportedly after Paret mocked Griffith’s sexual orientation), which killed Paret 10 days later. Paret is just one of many boxers who has met a similar fate.

Wrestlers, too, have stirred up media controversy where head injuries are concerned.  In 2007, WWE pro wrestler Chris Benoit shocked the sports community by committing a gruesome murder-suicide which claimed the lives of his wife and 7-year-old son, in addition to his own.  After the tragic incident, doctors began to investigate what could have caused such uncharacteristically brutal behavior.  Some placed the blame on “roid rage.”  But Julian Bales, the head of West Virginia University’s neurosurgery department, arrived at a different conclusion.  After testing, Bales uncovered that “Benoit’s brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.”

Yet it’s a far less violent sport which claims the #1 spot on the TBI risk scale: cycling.

That’s right — cyclists are more likely than boxers, wrestlers, or football players to suffer from sports-related traumatic brain injury.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, in 2009, hospital emergency rooms treated brain injuries in:

  • 8,145 hockey players
  • 23,114 skateboarders
  • 46,948 football players
  • 85,389 cyclists 

Based on these statistics, cyclists incur nearly twice as many serious head injuries as football players.  Even notoriously dangerous activities like skateboarding and jumping on trampolines (5,919 injuries) have far lower rates of brain injury than riding bicycles.

Among children aged 10 and under, bicycling is still the most common cause of sports-related brain injury, with over 40,000 cases treated versus roughly 22,000 cases treated for football in second place.  Every year, roughly 600 people die from head injuries caused by bicycle accidents — two-thirds of which are classified as TBI.

Tragically, estimates say that as many as 85% of these deaths could have been prevented by simply wearing a helmet.

If someone you love has been hurt or killed by TBI, you may have a case for a personal injury claim or a wrongful death lawsuit.   For a free case evaluation with an experienced attorney, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online.

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