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Cutting Down Concussions (And Junk Science)

There has been a lot of discussion around CTE and how it may impact the future of football and other contact sports - some gadflys predict it will be football's ultimate demise or render the sport unrecognizable - but the studies are not yet sufficiently comprehensive to draw many conclusions beyond a general agreement that concussion is a euphemism for brain injury and that limiting repetitive brain injury is a good thing unless you think Leon Spinks was a latter-day Oscar Wilde.

I wrote this a year ago, and I think it still holds up - particularly my prediction that various self-anointed safety lobbies will be misusing and abusing the scientific method enough to give Karl Popper the post-mortal shits and Charles Darwin the dirt nap red-ass when discussing this issue.

One of the major problems with the current informal "studies" is that the research has primarily been on athletes who exhibited aberrant behavior before their deaths. Just as with steroids in the 1980s, it's now assumed by media and fans that any athlete standing naked in the road firing his Glock at traffic helicopters, who then turns it upon himself, is suffering from CTE as a direct result of their participation in a violent sport. And confirmed when the post-mortem reveals brain trauma.

Unfortunately, they forget to mention that almost all of us have brain scarring and lesions - from sports, from falling from a high chair when you were 3, from head butting your bros in Lake Havasu.

It's the scientific equivalent of shooting an arrow at a target, drawing a circle around it, and yelling bullseye.

For starters, we need brains from healthy former athletes who don't exhibit aberrance to provide control groups. Lots of them. Peer review might also be nice. And a half dozen other little niceties that make up meaningful inquiry.

As that process unfolds and we get epidemiologist's and neuroscientist's involved in framing the discussion rather than pop science, the question, then, is how best to minimize brain injury without turning the game into two-hand touch?

I don't share the assumption of safety as an absolute and inarguable priority that trumps all other considerations - part of the value of a contact sport is precisely the idea that you're in some form of peril. That written, if technology and some sensible rules can prevent brain injury, it's a very good thing.

Which brings us to Virginia Tech. They may not be saving football so much as reframing the argument. Va Tech just released the first comprehensive study on helmet safety and how helmet choice may provide as much as 30% reduction in concussion rates.

Now all that has changed. Researchers at Virginia Tech have produced the first brand-by-brand, model-by-model ranking for the likely concussion resistance of helmets. A star-rating system modeled on crash safety rankings for automobiles, the rankings clearly identify the best and worst helmets.

And consider this little snippet:

Now the chilling part: the VSR4 -- Virginia Tech's second-lowest-rated helmet -- was the most common helmet in the NFL last season. The VSR4 is widely worn in college and high school, too. Immediately after the Virginia Tech findings were released, Riddell advised football teams to stop using the VSR4, long the company's best seller.

and this:

Watch the sidelines of NFL and NCAA games -- players are popping off helmets as easily as if they were baseball caps. Many football players don't know that a snug helmet reduces concussion risk, and coaches and equipment managers don't seem to be telling them.

The solution to much of this may not be all that dramatic after all. It may simply require a little technology, a little education, some real studies, and the dissemination of good practices.

Not so good for headlines, but good for players and fans.