Concussions are a key issue facing the CFL, but new research from the University of Alberta suggests that some of the league's efforts on that front are having an impact. Concussion awareness is improving at all levels of football across Canada. In particular, though, mandatory annual concussion education seminars have been a focus for the CFL since they were implemented last year. This data from lead Alberta researcher Dhiren Naidu and his team suggests those programs are having a noticeable effect on how much CFL athletes know about concussions, and that's an important finding. It's one that won't necessarily lead to the CFL suddenly becoming a safety-first league, though. Before we get to that, let's examine a key part from the university's release:
The study looked at how CFL athletes fared against their university-level peers when it came to concussion knowledge, and whether a one-hour concussion education program improved the two groups' knowledge. All of the CFL players realized the importance of seeking medical tests after a concussion vs. 67 per cent of university-level football players. ...
A total of 68 university athletes and 72 CFL athletes took part in this study, which involved answering a questionnaire before and after a one-hour concussion education session. Results showed most players knew how to manage concussions and what the hallmark symptoms were. And after the session, players were more apt to understand two key pieces of information: concussions can stem from blows to any part of the body, and MRI or CT imaging doesn't always detect concussions. The results demonstrated the education session improved players' knowledge. Last season the CFL implemented annual concussion education sessions for their athletes. These results confirm the effectiveness of the education sessions and outline the importance of continuing to educate athletes on the topic of concussion.
However, there were areas where the pro players came up short (by the researchers' standards) against their university peers:
On a different issue, 44 per cent of pro football players incorrectly thought it was safe to return to the sport one to two days post-concussion if they had no symptoms, while 26 per cent of their university peers believed this practice was safe.
While that research may term it "incorrect" that players should return one or two days after being symptom-free (recent concussion research suggests they should wait longer to return to game action, as does the CFL's official policy), that's not a conclusion that's going to be accepted by all players or teams. Take a look at the Buck Pierce saga last year, which involved Winnipeg head coach Tim Burke saying "However long it takes for him to pass that test is when he can play." Wiser heads eventually prevailed and Pierce eventually sat, but there's still a strong sense that playing as soon as possible is what's expected from players.
In many ways, that illustrates the divide in football over concussions and health. It's getting harder and harder to find those who doubt the long-term traumatic effects of head blows, but that doesn't mean there's widespread agreement on just how far the sport should go to improve safety. Consider the mandatory reduced contact in training camps this year, which is a positive move from the standpoint of many leading concussion authorities, but has been cited by many current and former players (including our own Sandy Annunziata) as a step too far.
That goes beyond football, as toughness is prized in most sports. The line between what's brave and what's foolish hasn't been clearly drawn, especially when it pertains to the head. In a world where Gregory Campbell is praised for finishing an NHL shift on a broken leg, of course players are going to want to get back on the field as soon as possible after head trauma, even if others question whether continuing in sport is the right move for them.
That isn't to say that these concussion education sessions aren't accomplishing anything. In fact, it looks like they're accomplishing a great deal: many CFL and university players came out of these sessions with a lot of important knowledge that's not as well-known in the athletic ranks, including that a hit to the head isn't required to sustain a concussion and that concussions can't always be detected on MRI or CT scans. It's also probable that many of them learned most scientific research recommends sitting far longer than one or two days after being symptom-free.
However, that doesn't mean that players are going to suddenly start thinking of safety as the absolute top priority, and that's also fair. After all, the safest possible versions of football would be no football at all or flag football, and no CFL fan, player or executive particularly wants either of those solutions. The real goal of concussion research shouldn't necessarily be imposing the safest possible protocols on football: it should be providing all stakeholders (players, coaches, executives and fans) with the best possible information, which can then be used in discussions on just what level of risk is acceptable.
Safety in the CFL is going to be an ongoing discussion and debate for years to come. Where these education sessions matter is from a perspective of informing players what the latest concussion research is and what they should know, and this study shows the sessions are helping to get those points across. What that actually leads to in terms of safety regulations is going to be a matter for negotiation between the players and the league, particularly in the next collective bargaining agreement, but also on an ongoing basis.
It would be foolish to expect players to suddenly go completely over to the side of increased safety, though, regardless of how much concussion education they're given. Their perspective on how the game should be played matters too. The school of football thought that favours toughness and contact is also going to have a substantial impact on the future direction of the CFL, regardless of what the research says. Whether that's a positive or a negative depends on your perspective, but it's unlikely safety will completely win the day any time soon.