Trauma Drama

Sarena Malsin, Sports Editor

The best way I can de­scribe a seizure is to com­pare it to a dream where it is absolutely imperative that you move, but despite your most concentrated efforts, you realize with dawning terror and limit­ed consciousness that you have no control over your body.

I was concussed when I was 12 years old playing defense in a soccer tour­nament for my premier team. It was an unremark­able play — I, a slightly-built spit of a kid, was steamrolled by an attacker twice my size — but this time, instead of popping back up, I stayed down af­ter my head snapped back to meet the ground.

My left arm shot up and stayed there for the dura­tion of the two minutes I was seizing, which, ac­cording to witnesses, was a wildly unsettling im­age. Apparently I looked so bizarre that at first my teammates could only laugh at the absurdity. My dad, however, is still haunted by the scene.

I had what was called a contact seizure, where after a particularly severe blow to the head, your brain bounces around in­side of your skull, stimu­lating brain tissue that causes seizures.

This isn’t a sob story; I’m extremely lucky to have my parent’s prudence and miraculous good fortune. Baseline tests showed that my mental processes were completely unaffected and my parents handled the situation very conser­vatively, limiting my play­ing time for the maximum duration suggested by professionals. The injury has certainly impacted me, but not in ways that have interrupted my qual­ity of life or physical and mental capabilities.

I’m sharing this personal story for two reasons: one, to emphasize how much I owe my parents for taking proper precautions and two, to provide a realistic first-hand account of a sports concussion. What happened to me was neither unique nor was it nearly as severe as what many other athletes have experienced, but it was voiced. And for some reason, that is more than what the professional sporting world has been able to do: recognize the threat of concussions and their effects on athletes, despite growing awareness and efforts to uncover the truth.

Concussion, a movie from Sony Pictures Entertain­ment set for a Christmas Day release in the United States, represents one of these efforts. Based on a 2009 article written by Jeanne Marie Laskas for GQ Maga­zine, the movie follows a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist as he discovers chronic traumatic encephalopathy (a progressive degenerative disease commonly found in professional contact sports play­ers) in two NFL players’ brains.

The film is intended to share a traumatic true story and also to reveal the extensive measures the NFL has taken to cover up the severe effects — notably demen­tia and death — that concussions have on their play­ers. The inspiration for the film’s protagonist, Dr. Ben­net Omalu, was publicly denounced and dismissed by the NFL after publishing his research.

However, recent hacks of Sony Studio’s email chains exposed email interactions between Sony representa­tives, marketing executives and Concussion director Peter Landesman that revealed their collective deci­sion to curb the film’s more shocking plot points so as not to incur the wrath of the NFL.

A particularly telling quote was lifted from these email leaks in which Dwight Caines, president of do­mestic marketing at Sony Pictures, says, “We’ll develop messaging with the help of NFL consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.”

Landesman and other Sony officials have since de­nied “bowing” to the NFL, saying instead that they were trying to give the NFL as little to complain about as possible so as not to damage the film’s credibility in the future, but the recognition that the NFL has the monetary and influential power to damage the cred­ibility of a very real and powerful cautionary tale is, itself, horrifying.

The NFL casts a frightening shadow, carrying enough weight to avoid changing its own behavior while influencing the behavior of its critics. But what is most upsetting is that it’s not the only sports pow­erhouse in the business of undermining head injuries.

FIFA has also made its failure to install concrete concussion protocol or any recognition measures glar­ingly apparent. This was evident most recently in the USA-Germany semifinal of the Women’s World Cup. German midfielder Alexandra Popp and U.S. midfielder Morgan Brian each contested an airborne ball, caus­ing a bloody head collision. Though both players dem­onstrated fairly obvious signs of head trauma, a view shared by sports newscasters, former athletes and sports medicine professionals alike, they were back on the field within minutes, an incredibly common sight in upper-level international contests in particular.

Arguments, especially in defense of football and the NFL, highlight the inaccuracies behind drawing a direct causative relationship between contact sports and diseases like CTE and lament the “death” of true football as increased safety measures are taken for high school teams. But a direct relationship doesn’t have to exist to acknowledge that head trauma result­ing in serious degenerative effects is a threat that con­tact sports players have to face. The integrity of these sports doesn’t have to suffer to deal with this threat. What do have to suffer are habits of appeasement, carelessness, lack of accountability and silence.

Contact sports are dangerous in their very essence, but more harmful is sweeping experiences of players under the rug. This not only allows their employers (or other responsible supervisors) to shirk obligations to­ward their health, but also creates a culture of delegiti­mizing serious threats to players, shutting out produc­tive discourse about injury prevention and education.

As giants and leaders in the sports world, FIFA and the NFL have a responsibility to their teams bound by league regulations, hyper-competitive culture and the audiences who follow examples they broadcast. Con­cussions aren’t fun, sexy, or comfortable to talk about, and admittedly knowledge about them is still shaky. But this is why it is imperative that these organiza­tions lead the push toward open discourse about head injury. Otherwise, the only way people will confront this threat is through immediate experience, which, while effective, is a grossly lazy and sadistic fallback plan.

What really makes me bang my head against the wall is that they are no strangers to profiting from the physical drama of the spectator sports they sup­port. Entire newscasts are dedicated to inevitably healing ankle injuries keeping players out of a total of three games while potentially life-altering head blows are presented as a non-issue. Adult-onset dementia doesn’t sell.