Brain injuries in sports getting attention — finally

Young California football players practice for the big game. (Photo: bikeriderlondon, via Shutterstock)

Over the years, traumatic brain injuries in sports were never really discussed and stories of career-ending accidents were often glossed over.  However, the winds are changing.  Individuals suffering from serious head injuries are gaining a voice and have begun raising awareness through both the media and legislative efforts.

As more and more stories of career-ending injuries pepper the news, the topic is finally getting the attention it deserves.  Recently, Chris Borland, a 24-year-old linebacker with the 49ers walked away from his $3 million contract and retired to stave off the risk of serious head injuries, deciding instead to focus on his future…fully intact. On April 4, 2014, Dondre Ransom, a former marine, father of two and a semi-pro football player for the Sacramento Wildcats, sustained a concussion while playing that left him blind and dependent on a ventilator to breathe. These stories are just a sampling of what’s happening on the sports fields each day. The list goes on and on.

A traumatic brain injury is typically defined as a blow, a jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the function of the brain. According to the Brain Trauma Foundation, TBI is the leading cause of death and disability in children and adults from ages 1 to 44.  Each year, approximately 52,000 deaths result from TBI and an incredible 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports-related TBI injuries occur annually. Today, there are approximately 350,000 TBI survivors in California alone (extrapolated from Centers for Disease Control data).  Medical and mental health care costs for a single TBI often exceed $4.6 million (California Dept. Health Services’ 2007 statistics).

The increased incidence of traumatic brain injuries in sports has resulted in new rules and regulations being adopted by sports leagues like the NFL, NCAA and others.  They are designed to decrease the risk of concussions and other injuries. It’s a great first step but it’s not enough.

As the rate of TBI’s increase annually, the services to treat them need to increase too.

With limited resources and current monetary caps on Medicare therapy services, victims of TBI are often left relying on friends and family to get them through the hard times.

Borland stated that he retired after reading stories about former players and felt a multi-million contract was not worth what so many players have lost.  Borland has become a strong advocate for the cause and will be a keynote speaker at brain injury conferences around the country.  And in Sacramento, he will join us during the Draft Day event on May 29, a benefit for Dondre Ransom to help to raise awareness of the devastating effects of a TBI while raising much needed funds from supporters to cover Dondre’s mounting medical expenses.

While fundraisers are great, no matter how successful, they are just a Band-Aid fix to the larger underlying problem. Instead, we need elected officials to stop talking about cutbacks for TBI and start introducing legislation that will help children and adults suffering from brain injuries.

There is some good news on this front.  This week, a federal judge approved a settlement to resolve a concussion lawsuit between the NFL and former players.  This agreement provides payments to NFL retirees suffering from certain neurological issues and provides funding to monitor, diagnose and counsel ex-players.  Additionally, some legislators understand the positive impact they can make in the area of TBI.  U.S. representatives, including Xavier Becerra (D-Ca.) and Lois Capps (D-Ca.), are helping lead the way to fully repealing the current monetary caps on Medicare therapy services, and other legislation has been introduced that will help establish guidelines on diagnosis, treatment, and management of mild traumatic brain injuries in school aged children. In addition, the reintroduction of the Supporting Athletes, Families and Educators to Protect the Lives of Athletic Youth (SAFE PLAY) Act bill could play a substantial part in promoting the safety of our state’s youngest athletes.

Continued media coverage combined with forward thinking legislation will play a big role in bringing greater awareness to TBI injuries, reducing the number of injuries occurring in sports, and helping those already suffering from serious head injuries.  The time is now for innovative and effective solutions that will help people like Dondre and others on their road to recovery.

Ed’s Note: George Visger, a biologist, attorney and former player for the San Francisco 49ers,  is the CEO of the Visger Group – Traumatic Brain Injury Consulting. Eric Ratinoff is a founding partner at the personal injury law firm Kershaw, Cutter & Ratinoff, LLP.  His specialties include  traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and motorcycle and bicycle accidents.



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