Gisele is not a neurologist, yet her words shed light on the concussion debate

I’m really ticked off at Gisele Bundchen. It’s not because she reignited the “Patriots are dirty cheaters” storyline. I don’t really care about the perception that she has given Tom Brady an ultimatum – her or football. I’m angry with Gisele because her words to Charlie Rose this week are making me confront an uncomfortable truth I’d rather not think about. I knowingly consume, celebrate, and endorse a sport that I logically know is too dangerous. And I don’t know if there’s a way to fix it without ruining the game of American football.

“You know, I just have to say as a wife, I’m a little bit, its, as you know, it’s not the most like, let’s say, un-aggressive sport, right?” Bündchen told Rose. “Football, like he had a concussion last year, I mean he has concussions pretty much every–you know, we don’t talk about it but he does have concussions. I don’t really think it’s a healthy thing for your body to go through like, through that kind of aggression like, all the time–that cannot be healthy for you, right? I mean I’m planning on having him be healthy and do a lot of fun things when we’re like 100, I hope.”

Gisele’s words seem both genuine and spontaneous. I don’t know if they are, but as a wife and mom myself, I can’t help but empathize with her. While tackle football is a game I love to watch and debate, I won’t let my boys play. Why? Because the injuries that I see in football far surpass in both severity and prevalence the injuries that I see in almost every other sport. The only true knee dislocations that I have seen in kids have all been football injuries. Knee dislocations can injure the nerve to the ankle and cause permanent difficulty walking, let alone playing football. And yet, a knee dislocation worries us all much less than the cumulative effects of multiple head injuries and risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

To me, the most important message to come from Gisele’s words is that head injuries (PLURAL) happen to everyone in the NFL – even Tom Brady. You may have watched every single game last season and thought that he looked as sharp as ever, flipping through plays on his armband in the huddle. But you were fooled. Just like the weekly injury reports only speak to a fraction of the ailments players are dealing with, the number of concussions reported by NFL teams are only the tip of the iceberg. Many head injuries go unrecognized and untreated. So, who is to blame?

The first problem is that the definition of a concussion is ambiguous. The Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology defines concussion as a trauma-induced alteration in mental status that may or may not involve loss of consciousness. What on earth does that even mean? It means that there is a HUGE spectrum of brain injury that could be considered a concussion. Sometimes the symptoms of concussion are obvious – loss of consciousness, dizziness, disorientation – and trainers, independent spotters, coaches can all pick those out. But some symptoms are much more subtle –  changes in concentration, sleep, irritability, or headaches. I would be willing to guess that most football players have symptoms like that after a majority of games. Heck, some of us have those symptoms without a history of trauma.  If an athlete develops more subtle symptoms hours after the game or even the next day, should they report them? The obvious answer is “yes.” But realistically, if every player reported each headache, episode of slight dizziness or difficulty sleeping, who would be on the field Monday morning? How should NFL players decide what level of symptoms warrants reporting?

Gisele told us the answer – “we don’t talk about it.” Professional athletes want to play the game. They don’t want to sit on the sidelines. Couple their inherent drive with a league that does not guarantee its players’ salaries and a medical system that is employed by teams rather than players and you’ve got a bunch of elite athletes who are never going to tell you they’re feeling more lightheaded since Sunday’s game.

The NFL is not alone in this. Boston Bruins Center Patrice Bergeron wrote an entry in the Player’s Tribune recently about his experience during Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals.

When it was all over, I shook hands with the guys on the other team and then sort of stumbled back to the locker room. The trainers evaluated me, and then I ended up at the hospital where they determined I had suffered a punctured lung.

But …. I’d do it all again.

The cracked ribs, the cartilage, even the punctured lung. I’d do it all again in a second.

Professional athletes do, on some level, need to be protected from themselves. Do you know why Bergeron would do it again? Because he’s not dead from playing with a punctured lung. If a college football player gets mild concussive symptoms and plays through them and something catastrophic doesn’t happen, would he do it again? Probably. Now fast-forward a couple of years and add the fact that he’s not going to meet his contract incentives if he doesn’t play. You can see how it happens.

There shouldn’t be such a disconnect between what we would want for our own kids and husbands and what we accept from professional sports leagues. If you’re mad that Gisele was “flapping her gums” and think that NFL players signed up for head injuries the day they entered the draft, please ask yourself this. If your son played football and had subtle symptoms like increased irritability, forgetfulness, inability to sleep or mild headaches, and you knew that those symptoms meant he was doing permanent damage to his brain, would you want him to keep playing? I wouldn’t.

You could argue that maybe Gisele shouldn’t have spoken so publicly about her husband’s injury history. As it turns out, her unfiltered comments really shed some light on the NFL concussion conversation.  I really appreciate them and hope that they are not simply rolled into a sensationalized story of “A Marriage on the Rocks.” Football is so inherent to who Tom Brady is. He seems to live and breath off of the focus and the challenge. As long as the rest of him remains healthy and he continues to play at a high level, he’ll likely need to make a decision sometime soon – will there be a point when the sacrifice is no longer worth it?

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