KONSTANTINE FEKOS/Meadville Tribune
Scientists, journalists and football players share a common field when addressing the issue of concussions in the sport and how it may affect players down the line, according to officials invited to speak during a recent panel discussion at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
Members of the public joined university students in Compton Hall for a medical, journalistic and sports-related panel discussion hosted by Edinboro University and WQLN Public Media.
“This issue is the biggest news story in sports,” said Tony Peyronel, the university’s Department of Communication and Media Studies chair. “Our panelists are some of the best possible people we could find to lead these discussions.”
The panel focused mainly on the recent history of studying concussions and traumatic brain injuries suffered in the sport of football and their long-term effects on players.
Discussions were preceded by a partial screening of the Frontline/PBS documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”
Panelists included Dr. Mark Hogue, neuropsychologist and part owner of Northshore Psychological Associates and Northshore Neurosciences in Erie; George Roberts, certified athletic trainer and former Edinboro University faculty member; Charles Rush, acclaimed football player at Erie’s Cathedral Prep and Penn State University and law student at Villanova University; and Mark Kelso, former Buffalo Bills safety and radio color commentator.
One of the most frequent questions asked was if football should be abolished.
“Logically, a person wouldn’t put themselves through trauma,” Rush said, explaining players know and accept the risk when they put on their pads. “I had to believe I was the best person to put on cleats, going against bigger guys.”
For many players, Rush explained, athletic competition is a balance between a mental toughness and risk factor — the ambition to achieve and keep a spot on the team weighing against the potential of incurring injury through overexertion and worsening it by playing through the pain.
“Football is probably the greatest American game,” Roberts said. “It’s a sport people benefit from.”
Rather than “finger point” at football, one of many high-impact sports, people should focus on the benefits and lessons learned on the field, Roberts added.
More realistically, the National Football League may continue or expound upon preventative measures, including fining players for exceptionally hard hits, deterring them from becoming potential liabilities to their teams, Rush said.
“The most exciting thing to me is the cultural change, which is not easy in sports,” Hogue said. “Incredible tension exists, even now.”
Roberts cited statistics regarding subtle changes in the game recently, including differences in kickoff returns. The NFL recently changed kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35, resulting in fewer runbacks and more touchbacks.
“There are far fewer runbacks of kickoffs,” he said. “You see more 106- to 107-yard touchdowns because that’s what people want to see.”
The number of high-yardage kickoff returns reduced by about half over the past few years, resulting in an approximate two-thirds drop in kickoff concussions.
“We don’t want to see football abolished, we just want to see it played safely,” Kelso said. “We all have a responsibility to help mitigate the problems.”
After suffering two severe concussions during his career, Kelso recalled turning to technology to improve his safety and stay in the game.
“From about (1986) to (1993) I wore a pro-cap,” he said, presenting a modernized outer-padded helmet to the crowd. “It looked ridiculous to the team, but I wasn’t willing to risk my long-term health.”
Kelso and other panelists agreed significant testing of preventative products like the pro-cap would at least mitigate concerns and help prevent severe injuries.
“No helmet yet is concussion-proof,” Rush said. “You can’t stop the movement of the brain in the skull.”
He recalled, however, seeing the beginnings of helmet improvements during his Penn State days with a mandatory upgrade.
“We’re seeing a culture change because we’re talking about it,” Hogue said, commenting on a trickle-down effect reaching other college divisions and even high school football with parents getting involved in a positive way.
“This is a topic a lot of people are interested in,” Peyronel said. “The issue and the quality of this panel brought in the best crowd we’ve seen in this room.”
The event was sponsored by Edinboro University’s Department of Communication and Media studies and the university’s chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America.