Concussions Suck

Amanda Kessel will not finish her career at UMN.

Given the advances in concussion science there is no doubt at all that this is the right decision. The current understanding is that after even a mild head injury the brain should be used as little as possible (cue Scott Walker joke) to give it time to recover. If you aren’t supposed to read, which seems like the worst thing in the world to me, you sure as hell shouldn’t be playing a contact sport. Post-concussion syndrome can include memory, balance, and attention problems as well as lingering pain. We all also know what the long-term effects of more than one concussion can be. No one should be asked to develop Alzheimer’s-like symptoms and/or depression in their forties for playing a game. [Edit: yes, Kessel could return to the national team or the pros after a few years off, but I have posted about this in the past, noting it isn’t a good idea to take any kind of risk with head trauma].

Also problematic: the officiating and the rules around body contact in women’s hockey. They are too ambiguous and they are not applied consistently. This is going to keep happening until that gets addressed.

There is a real argument to be made that Kessel was the best player in the world from 2012-2014, that phrase being on my mind because I saw it used to describe Poulin a few minutes ago. This story illustrates the cruel differences between a history of injury such as Poulin’s, which can be recovered from, and head injury. Kessel was certainly the most dynamic and exciting college player of recent years. She was also unusually visible to the wider culture, for good and ill, due to her connections with the NHL. This is a huge hit to the sport, but again absolutely the right call. I wish Amanda a full recovery, and the best of luck in whatever her future holds.

The Wrong Lesson

Back when I was so foolish as to write about other sports, one of the first stories that caught my attention, in part because I once found myself sitting across the aisle from her at an invitational,* was that of Jamie Carey.

Some of you more dedicated women’s sports nerds may remember this one.  Carey was a point guard at Stanford majoring in one of those ritzy complex systems programs, a combination of computer science and philosophy.  She also had a penchant for taking charges and other scrappy things beloved of coaches.  Unfortunately this caused her to suffer from what we would now term severe post concussion syndrome. She had headaches and dizziness.  She could no longer concentrate or remember well enough to do her mathematical schoolwork, and had to switch majors to something with more writing.**  Certainly there was no chance of playing basketball again.

Over time, however, her acute symptoms faded, although as I recall the cognitive ones didn’t entirely and she had to stay with the other major.  But Stanford refused to clear her to return to the court.  So she transferred to Texas, where (to be fair after extensive testing) they had her pop in a mouthguard and get back into the game.***   Texas was still a top ten women’s program at the time, and Carey helped them to their last major gasp of success before their recent woes.  When I first covered this story, about a decade ago, the sports commentariat was in agreement that it taught us about lawsuit-shy programs that didn’t serve their players’ needs, versus more flexible teams that prospered.

We got it backward.  Based on what we now know about the science of concussions Jamie Carey should never have played a sport with contact again. A mouthguard! For extreme post-concussion symptoms!  Pundits are fond of saying about professional male athletes that they are free to make their own choices.  The fact the players were working with incomplete information fails to come up, although certainly Carey was much more educated than many of her compatriots. She was extremely happy and successful playing at Texas. She even went on to serve as a backup in the WNBA and is now coaching for the U.S. national team.  I have no evidence to suggest she’s suffering from any serious deficits at the moment.  But our current research shows she put herself at risk for longterm damage.  I suspect this was something Stanford guessed at and I have to say I also suspect Texas, which is no slouch in the academic medicine department, did as well. But Texas wanted to win more than it was afraid of being sued if she developed, say, early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Again, I have no information to suggest that will happen in this particular case and I devoutly hope and pray it does not.  Yet ironically Stanford acted in Carey’s best interests even though at the time it was simply protecting itself against future liabilities.

I bring this story up now because of the news that Amanda Kessel is sitting out the year due to concerns about concussive symptoms.  The women’s hockey community is obviously pretty bummed.  However we also understand that this is about protecting Kessel’s longterm health, especially since there is no choice between a lucrative professional career and her cognitive function.  In some odd way female athletes are lucky in this regard.  There’s no money awaiting them to sacrifice their future.  We’d all rather that money was there, but it also makes prioritizing much easier.  The sport suffers without one of its most visible stars.  But if we’ve learned anything from mistakes made by teams and coaches in the past, it’s that the sport isn’t bigger than anyone’s ability to live a full post-sporting life.

*Not that I worked up the courage to actually talk to her, mind you.

**I am the last person to suggest such a major is less rigorous.  It simply emphasizes different skills.

***Fascinatingly, her current Wikipedia page emphasizes that it was an ankle injury rather than the concussions that caused her retirement from basketball at Stanford.  While clearly a big part of the equation, this was not the story that got emphasized during her career with Texas.