By the end of a morning lecture Monday, Sandra Chapman, Ph.D., had essentially told an auditorium full of football coaches that all the doomsday stuff they’ve been hearing about concussions isn’t quite as bad the media has made it seem.
“What’s being touted is ahead of the evidence,” Chapman later told a small group of reporters off to the side.
Welcome to the newest twist in the discussion of head injuries and football – commissioned and endorsed, of course, by the folks whose livelihood depends on football.
Don’t like what the research says? Find another researcher.
“Youth football’s benefits to health and well-being far, far exceed the risks,” Chapman, who is not a medical doctor but founded the Center for BrainHealth at UT-Dallas in 1999, told the American Football Coaches Association.
No wonder folks like National Football Foundation president Steve Hatchell and AFCA executive director Grant Teaff were giddy over Chapman’s appearance, which concluded a morning session that sounded a lot like a pep rally for the football.
All the bad stuff you’ve heard lately about the sport, the declining participation among teenagers and the increased focus on its long-term dangers? The overarching message here Monday was this: Football is under attack, and it’s time to fight back.
“In 38 years, I don’t have one former player who isn’t functional due to concussions, but I do have a whole lot of healthy players,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s a case study, isn’t it? We’re trying to make people think before they react.”
And in Chapman, who described herself as a former Texas cheerleader, the coaches have found their champion.
Which isn’t to suggest Chapman’s research and her conclusions about concussions are wrong. But they certainly are different.
Essentially, Chapman’s point is that while the bulk of the research on concussions has focused on what goes wrong in the brain, her focus is on healing and regaining full function after an injury. And not only does the brain heal itself, it can “build resilience” through certain exercises she has developed.
Her method for how that happens was a bit fuzzy – it sounded like physical therapy for the brain through problem-solving and other intense cognitive exercises – but her basic conclusion was that concussions don’t pose a significant long-term health risk and that the brain will return to normal given proper care and recovery time.
“The myth is that brain damage is permanent,” Chapman said, though she acknowledged later that once cases of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) become severe, there is very little that can be done to bring them back.
Maybe that sounds more controversial than it really is. Chapman, after all, acknowledged that the most important aspect is concussion prevention and that there are risks if a football player returns to the field before being fully healed.
In other words, she’s not saying concussions are good. And she claims that her methods to measure brain function are more intricate than conventional baseline tests, which are far from foolproof if a player wants to “sandbag” so that it’s easier to meet the threshold once he gets a concussion.
On the other hand, it was a little curious to hear a neuroscientist tout health benefits of football such as making teenagers less likely to engage in other risky behaviors, less likely to become addicted to video games and encourage better sleep. She even talked about “brainomics” – her own word – which she defined as “the high economic cost if we don’t encourage youth to play team sports.”
Is that science or propaganda?
“We pick up where basic medicine drops off,” Chapman explained. “Basic medicine will say, ‘O.K., you’ve got this concussion; here, take this and go to sleep.’ I’m a cognitive neuroscientist that is focused on how the brain learns, rewires. Medicine doesn’t study how the brain rewires.
“Most research centers are focused on what goes wrong with the brain. We want to know how can we maximize it regardless of whether it’s concussions or ADHD or drug addiction or bipolar disorder. Medicine doesn’t do that. They kind of say here’s your pill, goodbye.”
This was the first time Chapman, who said she wasn’t paid for the appearance, officially spoke with the backing of an organization like the AFCA, which is comprised mainly of college and high school coaches. The NCAA, which is embroiled in several lawsuits over concussion issues, “has been the toughest nut to crack in this whole domain,” said Lori Cook, her research partner specializing in pediatrics. Cook also noted that a person like Dr. Robert Cantu, arguably the nation’s leading voice on sports concussions, “has been so overpowering it’s crowded out” other research.
But the AFCA is going to make sure Chapman’s voice is heard, and she comes to the table with a very different viewpoint than what coaches and parents have been hearing the past couple years.
“A lot of moms will say, should (their son) take the risk if he’s not going to be an NFL player?” Chapman said. “Yeah, because the benefits are so much greater than the risks. Just because he won’t play in the NFL doesn’t mean don’t let him play football.”
In other words, the battle over the concussion narrative has now been engaged, with the backing of an organization that represents thousands of coaches at all levels.
*courtesy of usatoday.com