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Super Bowl LII is upon us, and in a sign of our times, oddsmakers are taking side bets on whether a player will leave the Big Game due to a concussion. The odds favor yes, and so do the data. One study found that in recent seasons, there’s a 72 percent chance that a concussion will knock a player out of any given NFL game. If it happens in the Super Bowl, in front of 110 million or more television viewers, we’ll hear even more about this problem.
It’s good to spread awareness, but our focus on concussions obscures an even bigger issue: Americans love violent sports, and because of it, we’re subjecting our young people to potentially debilitating injuries virtually every single day. Contact sports like football, hockey, soccer, and lacrosse are hugely popular, but also hugely harmful. High school and college athletes who play contact sports suffer an estimated 650,000 more injuries a year than those who play non-contact sports like baseball, costing an estimated $5.8 billion to $20.7 billion in medical care, according to a recent study by Yale economist Ray Fair.
And the really frightening part? We don’t know how big the risks and costs are. Fair says we don’t have reliable data for high school and college sports injuries, because schools and teams don’t gather it.
“How many injuries are there in football and ice hockey and lacrosse, and how serious are they?” he asks. He says parents and students might make different decisions about sports they play if they had better data. “Many people don’t realize how many injuries there are because there isn’t careful data collection on this.”
Let’s start there.
If we’re serious about protecting young bodies and brains from damage, it’s time to establish a national sports injury database. The data would be anonymized, but should include as much information as possible on injuries suffered by youth, high school, and college athletes. Why these groups? Far more people play sports at these ages, and we’ll need a lot of data to make brain-saving, body-sparing, cost-shedding new policies. If we don’t know the scope, severity, and frequency of sport injuries, it’s difficult to implement rule changes that make games safer. Policy before large, accurate data sets is the sports equivalent of the old cart before the horse. It will get you somewhere, but not as far as you want or need to go.
Such a database would provide a much-needed reliable set of statistics for players, parents, coaches, sports officials, school administrators, researchers, and politicians. It would improve the accuracy of studies about sports injuries and their consequences. It would make athletes and their parents more informed, especially when they face tough decisions about returning to action after an injury. It would help economists like Fair more accurately calculate the billions spent on sport injuries. And that price tag may prove a more persuasive argument for restrictions on contact sports than anything else. Over time, the database would be a critical reference, a kind of longitudinal study for anyone interested in seeing the cause-and-effect of new rules, policies, and equipment.
Some injury data collection efforts already exist at the youth, high school, and college levels, but they’re not required, centralized, or standardized. The sports injury database needs to be all three. And the data need to be collected by an organization that isn’t affiliated with school sports. Sorry, NCAA.
Here’s how a national injury database could work: Fair’s study divided injuries into four types — concussions, bone injuries, tear injuries such as sprains and dislocations, and muscle injuries such as contusions and spasms. These categories provide a good framework for a national sports database. Trainers, coaches, or administrators would enter everything from pulled hamstrings to broken collarbones to concussions. Then the numbers would be submitted to state and national panels, similar to how the National Institutes of Health data repositories work. From there, the information would be organized into user-friendly grids and charts, as accessible for a 12-year-old soccer player and her parents as for a 62-year-old researcher and her laboratory staff. The data would also be analyzed and summed up in an annual report.
It’s true that such a database could produce some worrisome sport-by-sport numbers. Fair expects it would show a frequency and severity of injuries alarming enough that sports and school administrators might consider dropping contact sports, or changing a contact sport to a non-contact version (for instance, flag football instead of tackle). But the national sports injury database won’t have an agenda. It could perhaps someday show that limiting contact in practice for all or part of a season greatly reduces injury risk.
I’m not saying we should ban contact sports. We don’t ban cigarettes or alcohol, but we do restrict them based on data gathered about how smoking and drinking impact public health and safety. Data on the dangers of secondhand smoke ultimately led to restaurant smoking bans. Data on alcohol-related car accidents led to an increase in the minimum drinking age. Data on concussions and sub-concussive hits have led US Youth Soccer to ban heading before age 11, USA Hockey to face pressure to raise the age limit for body checking from 12 to 15, and to a call by former NFL players to prevent children younger than 14 from playing tackle football.
This isn’t about being a spoilsport. Kids want to play, not sit on the sidelines, recuperating. Let’s keep them in the game.