Duckler: Panel talk shows how cloudy the discussion on concussions still is

  • Former professional football player Matt Chatham answers a question during a symposium titled “Concussions: Risks, Realities and Reforms” at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Panelists take part in a symposium titled “Concussions: Risks, Realities and Reforms” at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Amy Hollingworth speaks during a symposium titled "Concussions: Risks, Realities and Reforms" at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor columnist
Thursday, September 14, 2017

Matt Chatham’s Super Bowl ring sparkled with clarity, leaving no doubt the former Patriots linebacker had won an NFL championship.

If you wanted an ambiguity-free bottom line at Wednesday’s symposium on concussions, however, you didn’t get one.

It’s the nature of the beast, a medical condition that won’t turn up on any CAT scan, MRI or X-ray. It’s as gray as an overcast sky and, in fact, as fuzzy as your mind after a nasty tackle.

It’s also on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days when football is the subject, and it doesn’t matter what level you’re talking about: the little guys in grade school, or the big ones in the NFL.

“This is one of the biggest things that football players deal with where there is no (clear) line, and that’s what makes it so difficult,” Chatham said during the question-and-answer portion of the event. “It’s so difficult because of the logistics of this.”

So difficult, in fact, that not even this distinguished panel could sift through the data and the research and the literature and reach an airtight conclusion.

Beyond Chatham, who played for the Patriots from 2000-05 during a nine-year career and has an MBA from Babson College, there was Mike McCann, a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law in Concord and legal analyst for Sports Illustrated; Dr. Bill Storo, who specializes in concussion injuries and prevention at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Concord; Drew Galbraith, director of Peak Performance at Dartmouth College; and Amy Hollingworth, the director of the Safe Sports Network at the New Hampshire Musculoskeletal Institute and an athletic trainer.

In other words, this was a stage of really smart people. In other news, none of them could give the auditorium full of administrators and coaches and parents a definitive answer as to what makes a concussion tick.

“You could play for years and have no problems,” Dr. Storo said. “You could have a short career and have problems. There is no reliable data. Just try to minimize getting whacked in the head.”

Or, to make matters simpler, stick to tennis.

“We have 1,000 athletes and 35 teams,” Galbraith said, referring to Dartmouth College. “We had two concussions in swimming.”

One occurred, Galbraith said, when a swimmer rose too quickly while doing a sit-up. As Storo explained, a concussion is a “change in the way the brain functions after sustaining force.”

That means it can happen without getting hit in the head, from the brain hitting the skull when the head’s forward motion stops on a dime.

That, of course, simply adds to the mystery of concussions. We’re never sure how one happened, when it happened, when it’s gone, how long to lay off.

But the panelists, of course, did not assemble to warn against playing football. They simply wanted to loosen the flow of information, and that’s something Chatham, more than anyone else, has had a problem with over the past decade or so.

He did, after all, play in the NFL, winning three Super Bowls with the Patriots. He wore his diamond mine of a ring with pride, and he admitted he loved the contact when he played.

What he didn’t like, however, was the manner in which he perceived that the NFL had hidden the dangers of concussions to players during their career. That's led to lawsuits and billions of dollars in payouts, with more to come.

Chatham called some of the NFL information “B.S.,” and he slammed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for what he called a marketing campaign that sells safety to youth players.

“The thing I look to the most is when Roger Goodell says something like, ‘We are taking the head out of football,’ ” Chatham said. “If you know the sport, you know how ridiculous that is and you want to scream from the mountaintop. They’re fearful of being more forthright with their audience. The truth shall set you free.”

Meanwhile, parents of youth football players continue to struggle with a variety of questions. They hear McCann cite numbers, that the brains of 48 of 53 college players showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head, and 110 of 111 brains of former NFL players showed the same thing.

But, Storo mentioned, those brains came from players with symptoms. And, besides, how many of those cases of C.T.E. were hereditary, and what about the risk factor? How much responsibility do the players share for making a choice to play the sport? And how much more treacherous is football than, say, hockey and soccer and riding a bicycle and skiing and walking down the street?

Is the percentage of concussions in football really that much greater?

“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” Hollingworth told the audience. “It’s not an exact science, and a lot of times it’s an educated guess.”

The addition of athletic trainers such as Hollingworth and new tackling guidelines for youth and high school football have given the state's football community some relief. But a shadow of mystery remains over a sport that has a stigma attached to it, one of machismo and violence and, of course, concussions.

"If you want pristine brain health, don't play football," Chatham reasoned.

Then, as the crowd filed out after the symposium, I asked Chatham how many concussions he had suffered during his NFL career.

"I don't know," Chatham answered. "There's no way to tell. I know I had a few.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)