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Investigation: Concussions in sport – the untold stories and what can be done

Rich Jones speaks to former NFL lineman Will Rackley and Professor John Leddy to investigate the truth behind concussions in sport.

Just three years ago, Will Rackley spent his Sunday’s running out on an NFL field in front of tens of thousands of supporters.

Now, he sits in his Atlanta apartment trying to fit his second passion, painting, around the headaches and dizziness with which he suffers on a daily basis.

Much is made of the issue of concussions, not just within American Football but across all different sporting disciplines.

We often hear about players being pulled out of a game or sitting out a week of action, but we rarely hear about the experiences of those most affected.

As a starting offensive lineman for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Rackley was the focus of millions of watching eyes from around the globe.

Fast forward three years, and he has drifted back into relative obscurity and his story is a largely untold tale.

“I’m doing OK,” Rackley said. “I’m still getting over some of the concussion symptoms that I get personally day to day.

“I suffer from post-concussion syndrome, and that pretty much means that after a long, extended period of time I still have my concussion symptoms.

“Headaches, dizziness, light-headedness, balance issues, forgetfulness – those are the types of things I deal with on a daily basis.

“But I’m getting there, I’m learning to deal with it and I’m kind of getting used to it being this way.

“I do a lot of painting in my spare time, that’s something I really love and that I’ve spent a lot of time doing the last couple of years.

“I’ve always been into drawing, and my degree is actually in design. I’d always been interested in painting but I never tried it, so I decided to give it a go one day, I fell in love with it and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Rackley’s downfall was rapid and frightening. His first concussion in the NFL occurred here in London as the Jaguars played the San Francisco 49ers on October 27, 2013.

Fast forward just nine months and two more concussions and his career was over before he knew it, shot down in his prime at just 25 years of age by what he believed to be a fairly innocuous hit at the time.

He explained: “I had a series of three concussions in nine months, starting actually when we played in London against the 49ers.

“That concussion took me about a month and a half to two months to fully recover from, then I got another one in December of the same season.

“So it was one in October, one in December then I got my final one in July and I ended up getting post-concussion syndrome.

“At the time it wasn’t even that bad of a hit I don’t think, but I believe by that time I was just so susceptible to getting them.

“That was about my fifth one in all, because I had a few in college as well, and I knew right away it was a concussion from the symptoms I’d had before.”

In American Football, much is made of the spectacular big hits which occur when receivers are struck by defenders when catching the ball and in a defenceless state.

Such incidents have prompted strict rule changes to combat any contact with the head or neck area in certain dangerous scenarios.

But for offensive lineman such as Rackley, using your head as a tool with which to work is simply part of the job.

In the physical war of attrition which takes place surrounding the line of scrimmage, it is impossible not to use your helmet as part of the blocking process.

The result? Ongoing susceptibility to impact of a relatively low intensity, but which builds up to have a potentially devastating impact.

“I agree,” Rackley said when asked if ongoing hits to the head are a hidden danger in the sport.

“I’ve been talking a lot with a leading neurologist and they say that although the big ones are the defenceless receivers and whatnot, it’s the everyday small hits that you get over and over again which can cause major damage to the brain.

“As lineman, that’s something that happens constantly on a day to day basis, and that means when you do get a bigger hit you can be more susceptible to doing major damage.”

We posed the same question to Professor John Leddy, a leading researcher in concussions and post-concussion syndrome from the University of Buffalo.

“That is the million dollar question,” Professor Leddy said, “What is the risk of repetitive sub-concussive hits to the head?

“While case studies raise the issue of causation, they do not prove causation. The leading researchers in the field think that it is the cumulative exposure over time of repetitive hits to the head, not necessarily repeated concussions, that leads to the degenerative brain disease CTE.

“That said, why don’t all (if not most) American football players suffer from CTE? Nobody knows, but there is probably a genetic predisposition in some athletes that makes the environment of contact sports toxic to the brain.

“We simply don’t know who’s at risk right now. What it clear is that it is dangerous to continue to play while still recovering from a concussion, prior to resolution of symptoms and return of normal tolerance to exercise.”

There have been plenty of horror stories regarding players found to have suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition only discoverable by autopsy after death.

Former Patriots’ tight end Aaron Hernandez was found to be suffering with a serious case of CTE after committing suicide in prison earlier this year, where he was serving a life sentence for double homicide.

Meanwhile, Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher was also found to have CTE after a tragic incident in 2012 where he shot dead his girlfriend before driving to the team training facility and shooting himself dead.

Concussions and the risks they pose in future life are simply a dark unknown within sport at present, something which makes Rackley situation even more frightening as he brings up a young family.

Yet he insists he just tries not to focus on what the future might hold as he tries to get on with his day to day life.

He commented: “It is scary, but I’m in a better place now. It was three years ago I got my last concussion, and I try not to focus on the future.

“I don’t worry day to day about what the future will hold and the negative symptoms of the concussions. I do what I can not to think about it.”

It is clear that concussion and head injuries are a serious issue to be pondered across all of sport.

In rugby, we have seen a significant shift in recent years with Head Injury Assessments (HIA) seen in almost every professional game.

Likewise, American Football has acknowledged and is attempting to address the issue as are numerous other sports.

At a stage where our knowledge remains limited, it remains to be seen just how much can be done – but Professor Leddy believes players largely hold the biggest key to their own wellbeing.

He stated: “It’s a very big issue, primarily because we still don’t know the long term risks of repetitive head trauma.

“The most important thing is to recognise potential concussion symptoms and come out of play to be evaluated by a health professional who knows something about concussion evaluation and treatment.

“We know now that even continuing to play with concussion symptoms delays recovery and if the athlete sustains another head injury while still symptomatic from a prior injury, recovery is exponentially delayed.

“Concussion is, by definition, reversible. Therefore, if athletes are honest and treat the concussion properly, there is no reason that they cannot recover and return to play.”

For Rackley, the increased information and advice about dealing with concussions is too late to change his fate.

Bearing that in mind, the obvious question to pose to him to conclude our chat was this: if he could turn back the clock knowing what he does now, would he still pursue a career in American Football?

“It’s a tough question, but I don’t think I would go back and change anything,” he declared, after much deliberation.

“If I knew the consequences I know now from playing football, I don’t think I would change my choices.

“I had a great time playing football, I got to do what I loved at a high level and even though I wish this hadn’t happened, I would probably try and do the same if I had my chance again.”

With regards to concussions in sport, that is the bottom line.

We can educate people as much as possible regarding the danger of head injuries, but such is the passion for elite level sport that people will always believe the reward outweighs the risk.

There is no doubt things can be done to combat the issue, and those in positions of power, whatever the sport, should always strive to make their competition the safest it can possibly be.

But when powerful athletes collide in a contact sport, there is always going to be an element of danger which simply cannot be eliminated.

Players must be educated but must also be free to make their own choices, and as long as they are aware of the risks then we cannot begrudge them for choosing to risk their bodies in order to pursue sporting excellence.

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