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Friday 20 May 2011

Concussions in MLS

     A good result for Chivas USA on Sunday night was made even better by the return of defender Michael Lahoud, who overcame post concussion issues to assist his team in earning that jaw dropping 2-3 victory in New York against the Red Bulls. Concussions have become a serious issue in the sporting world in the past few years, the NHL and NFL are taking extreme measures, such as protective legislation and increased medical oversight to ensure the safety of their players.

    At the moment, there are 6 MLS players out of action for concussions and post-concussion symptoms: Jimmy Conrad (Chivas USA), Devon McTavish (D.C. United), Calen Carr (Houston Dynamo), Thorne Holder (Philadelphia Union) Patrick Nyarko and Michael Videira (both Chicago Fire). Jimmy Conrad, perhaps the highest profile players currently out, definitely the most entertaining and garrulous of the bunch, recently discussed his situation on his podcast. Making light of the situation as he usually does, Jimmy expressed the confusion and concerns associated with the condition, his desire to get out on the field, the indeterminate nature of the injury and the ramifications of collective damage suffered for one’s post professional career. 

    One of the most difficult aspects of brain injury is the complete lack of physical symptoms and obvious treatment plans. A broken leg has a visual component, a cast or a boot and a set amount of recovery time. A torn ligament has surgical procedures designed to remedy the problem, and an associated healing period, for the purpose of discussion these will be referred to as ‘obvious’ injuries. A damaged brain, an ‘invisible’ injury, has neither, severity and recovery time are not quantifiable with current knowledge, and it must be dealt with on a case by case basis, which can be very frustrating to fans, clubs and players alike. The ramifications of such invisible injuries are also much more serious than that of even the worst of the obvious injuries. One can damage a leg, knee or spine enough to have serious consequences for later life, even death is a remote possibility, but there remains something inherently chilling about the loss of one’s inner self due to a serious brain injury.

    The effects of these invisible injuries are just now beginning to become understood; Beyond the Pitch conducted an excellent interview with the author of “Head Games”, Chris Nowinski , who is also the co-founder and president of the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University School of Medicine. Research into this murky field is progressing, but is still woefully inadequate at a time when so much can be done to rectify once career ending obvious injuries. Tragic events such as the recent passing of Derek Boogaard rightly keep this issue at the forefront of the sporting world’s consciousness.

    MLS has a particularly unsettling past with the issue; stars such as Taylor Twellman, Alecko Eskandarian, Brian Namoff, Josh Gros and Ross Paule have been forced out of the game by their concussions, while Chad Marshall, one of the league’s best defenders, has battled symptoms as well. Such a laundry list of incidents is in stark contrast to their prevalence in European football. As Jason Davis ponders in this piece at the time of Namoff’s step away from the game, are players in MLS more susceptible to concussion, or is North America, being more versed in the consequences as evidenced by NFL and NHL incidents, more ready to accept the dangers inherent to these invisible injuries.

    The prototypical MLS player has several key differences that would raise awareness of this issue from that of the European footballer. The size of their pay packet is one reason to be more cautious, most in MLS will be required to find employment post playing career, whereas the massive financial rewards and subsequent security top level European football offers could blind one to the risks of head injury. Another factor is the level of education of the two sets of players; MLS players are more often than not university (college) educated and are thusly more informed, than their club academy raised counterparts, of such dangers existing in the world. It would be a disservice to European clubs to assume that they are not aware of the risk to players’ concussion poses, but perhaps the push to victory, huge amounts of money and lack of high profiles incidents, such as North America has experienced, has allowed them to sweep the issue aside.

    An incident that occurred early in this 2010-11 EPL season, as Liverpool battled Arsenal to a 1-1 draw at Anfield on August 15th, highlights this possible oversight. Danish defender, Daniel Agger, blocked a cross with his face and was visibly staggered by it; he left the pitch for treatment, but was allowed to return as Liverpool were out of substitutions and down a man as Joe Cole had been sent off, even though his distress was clearly evident for the duration of the match. Match reports in the British Media almost ignored the incident, only commenting how he battled through adversity to bravely help his team, a theme they are quite fond of, which according to manager Roy Hodgson left Agger with memory loss and “not doing to well”. The Guardian did however conduct a poll in the coming days as to whether this risking of a young man’s safety was an error of judgment, upon which the British public was rather evenly split.

    It does seem odd that a country with such a history in boxing, perhaps the most dangerous sport for these invisible injuries, pays such little heed to the effects of trauma to the brain. But times are changing, as more research is done and better comprehension of the affliction is grasped, hopefully one day there will not be such an invisible danger to the players and sports beloved by all. Celebrate the little victories in a battle such as this, Michael Lahoud has returned to his team; hopefully those listed above will do the same soon.

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