Concussions: a key issue for Canadian football in 2012, and one that will only get bigger

There were plenty of important storylines in the CFL this past year, but the league's most crucial issue may be one that goes well beyond the boundaries of Canadian football. That would be the ever-evolving saga of concussions in football, named the fourth-biggest sports story of the year in an Associated Press poll of U.S. editors and news directors. Yes, much of the talk around concussions has been about NFL and NCAA football, but concussions in the CFL were a prominent story throughout 2012, and dealing with them has been one of this league's most critical challenges. Furthermore, there's substantial reason to believe that this story isn't going away. If anything, football concussions are likely to become even more of an important topic in 2013 and beyond, and they'll certainly be a massive issue that the CFL has to address.

Unlike previous offseasons, which have featured concussion-related stories on everything from broadcasters' approaches to former players' concussion struggles to national concussion protocols to the role of alumni associations to former players' deaths and brain donations to research discussed at CFLPA meetings (and attempts to refute that), the first months of 2012 were pretty quiet on the concussion front in Canada. There were a couple of notable stories, with a book on former Tiger-Cat star Cookie Gilchrist featuring information on his diagnosis with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and former CFL player Doug McIver's family donating his brain to research following his death at 58 in January, but that was about it for the first few months.

Things were heating up on the concussion front south of the border during that time, though, as many former NFL players began to turn from discussion to litigation. In May, it came out that one of the plaintiffs in a key U.S. concussion suit is former NFL star Carl Hairston, who was hired as the B.C. Lions' defensive line coach in March. That sparked this story on why NFL alumni are suing and CFL alumni aren't (so far). After that, though, not much happened on the concussion front until the season kicked off.

The 2012 season may have featured more prominent concussion news than any CFL campaign to date, though. In September, researchers at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (I spoke to co-director Dr. Robert Cantu earlier this month) announced that they'd found CTE in McIver's brain, which made him by far the most recent CFL player to have been officially diagnosed with CTE and reinforced that concussions are not just a relic of football's early days. Later that month, we saw Calgary quarterback Kevin Glenn start a game despite complaints of a hit-generated headache that seemed awfully close to concussion symptoms (but was emphatically termed to not be a concussion by the Stampeders), which raised questions about just how effective the league's concussion protocols are. October intensified those questions, as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers initially planned to start quarterback Buck Pierce soon after he received a diagnosed concussion (and did put him back into a game after the hit that caused that concussion, but before he was officially diagnosed with it). The Bombers eventually did the smart thing and backed down thanks to Pierce's ongoing struggles, but they didn't exactly raise observers' confidence that CFL teams are managing concussions properly.

To be clear, concussions are far from an issue that's limited to the CFL. They're something that's a challenge for every level of football, and a concussion sustained at any level can have serious impacts on a player's life. A great illustration of that came from Katie Miyazaki, the Western Women's Canadian Football League star who spoke out in October about how a concussion she sustained in the summer was still causing her problems 12 weeks later and affecting her dream of playing for Canada. Her story in particular demonstrates that the concussion discussion isn't just about when players will be recovered and able to perform on the field. It's also about the impacts on their life off the gridiron, and other former players like Matt Dunigan have talked about how hits sustained in football are still affecting them decades later. This isn't limited to "will Player X be able to help my team this week?" It's also about "How will this affect Player X in 20 years?"

This showed up again in November when Calgary quarterback Drew Tate was hit during the first half of a playoff win over Saskatchewan. Tate appeared woozy and seemed completely out of it during a halftime interview with TSN where he said he didn't remember the first half, but he kept playing and said after the game that he got his "bell rung." Tate and the Stampeders spent much of the following week saying that he'd passed every concussion test and that his comments were interpreted the wrong way, but the handling of the situation raised plenty of red flags for concussion observers and led to discussion of if he should play in the West Final against the B.C. Lions. (He eventually did sit out for the rest of the year, but thanks to a late-discovered fractured wrist, not concussion questions.) Much like the earlier cases with Glenn and Pierce, there wasn't a smoking gun for observers to definitively conclude that the league or its teams did something wrong, but the Tate situation was further evidence that there are questions to be asked about the way this league handles of potential concussions.

As with the rest of the concussion debate, though, that's not something limited to the CFL, That was brilliantly illustrated in a December investigative piece from ESPN's Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru (in conjunction with PBS' Frontline) that discussed the problematic inconsistencies in how the NFL handles concussions. Here's the key part:

--The NFL has released two different sets of statistics this year about the number of concussions that occurred in 2010 and 2011, making it impossible to evaluate the league's claims that brain injuries decreased significantly during that period.

-- Teams use different and imprecise terms to describe concussions on injury reports, obscuring the prevalence and severity of head injuries from week to week.

-- On some occasions this season, team medical personnel have sent players back into games despite apparent symptoms that are listed under league guidelines for declaring a player "No Go," or unable to return.

"I'm gonna be blunt here: We're so primitive," said Dr. David Dodick, a neurologist who examines some NFL players as director of the concussion program at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Twenty years from now, we'll look back at ourselves and laugh."

Dodick said one NFL player recently told him: "Concussion is a four-letter word in the locker room right now."

What's clear is that concussions in football are only going to become a bigger story both north and south of the border. More and more research illustrating the severity of the concussion epidemic in football is coming out, and the Boston University group alone has now confirmed 50 cases of former football players with CTE. A co-director of that group, Dr. Robert Cantu (author of a remarkable recent book on concussions) spoke with 55-Yard Line this month, and his comments illustrate both just how important this story is given what we already know and how much is still yet to be discovered. Groups like the Boston University one and the Canadian Sports Concussion Project in Toronto are making incredible progress, but there's still a huge amount of work to do. Debates over player safety in football are only going to intensify going forward, and concussions will be at the heart of those. How the CFL handles head injuries will be a crucial story to watch in 2013 and beyond.