A concussion is a very nasty form of brain pinball. The brain bounces back and forth against the skull; in the process, a concussion can make something like counting to three seem like higher math and a simple laugh feel like electric shock treatment.
“I think it’s safe to say it’s not a good idea to hit your head on something,” said Ben Lynch, who played football for Analy, Cal and the 49ers. “I think most people would agree with that.”
And I would think most people interested in sports would already know about the deleterious consequences of an untreated concussion. I would think after the tragedy of Junior Seau, after the latest concussion headline that is Wes Welker, after the seemingly endless concussion stories, U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson wouldn’t have needed to do what he did Monday afternoon at Santa Rosa JC.
It was a concussion seminar. Lynch was there. So were physicians and athletic trainers. It was the third time this month Thompson held such an event, the two previous in Contra Costa and Lake counties. The audio-visual displays were dramatic, the information detailed and the message clear — coaches, parents, administrators and athletes better ramp it up. Lives depend on it. We’ve been hearing this message longer than Junior Seau has been dead.
So why the necessity to hold still another public forum?
The answer is contained in the response to a question posed to the panel. Would you let your 8-year-old son play Pop Warner (tackle) football?
Dr. Robert Nied, the Kaiser physician who helped write concussion guidelines for the CIF, and Dr. Ty Affleck, physician to SRJC and Sonoma State athletics teams, both had the same answer. They would inform their son of the risks. They said most sports contain physical risks. Nied told of a friend, a mixed martial artist, who received a concussion from a swinging cabinet door.
“If someone really wanted to play a sport,” Dr. Affleck said, “I wouldn’t stop him from playing. There are so many benefits derived from playing.”
Fair enough. Accurate enough. An informed athlete approaches a sport intelligently, makes smart decisions, and learns lessons to take into adulthood. A sport’s benefit can last long after a playing career.
On the other hand …
“I don’t have a son,” said Lynch, a bachelor. “But if I did, I wouldn’t let him play football.”
At age 8?
“At any level,” said Lynch, 41. “There’s still so much we don’t know about concussions. There’s so much unknown. This is just my opinion. It’s the right decision for me but that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for everybody.”
Lynch, a center, played six seasons in the NFL, four with the 49ers. He has volunteered to have his brain donated to scientific research upon his death. He estimated he suffered “at least a dozen” concussions in his career.
“But I was never knocked unconscious,” Lynch said proudly.
Lynch and the two physicians offer opposing views, both reasonable, both valid. A sport offers clear-cut winners and losers but concussions do not. Like the brain after it has been treated like a piñata, the topic gets a little fuzzy when the discussion is extended.
“There are no (conclusive) tests yet,” Lynch said. “There are still two big questions that need to be answered. When do you know you have suffered a concussion? And when is it safe to return to play? There’s so much gray area.”