LOS ANGELES — Twenty-one months after sustaining a blow to the head severe enough to cause temporary memory loss, Arizona offensive lineman Jacob Alsadek’s philosophy toward concussions hasn’t changed much.
“I try not to think about them, really,” he said.
To avoid losing his edge on the football field, Alsadek chooses to ignore the threat of concussions despite mounting evidence that football players are especially susceptible to brain injuries. The 22-year-old NFL hopeful hasn’t seen the latest terrifying research painting a grim picture for football players, nor does he have any plans to seek it out.
A study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that researchers had examined 202 brains belonging to men who played football and found that 87 percent showed signs of a neurodegenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Of the 111 brains donated by families of former NFL players, researchers found CTE in all but one of them.
“I’m scared to watch the Concussion movie,” Alsadek said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever look at that sort of thing.”
While Alsadek’s decision to intentionally bury his head in the sand may be unusual, he’s far from alone in not hunting for the most up-to-date data on the link between brain injuries and contact sports. Yahoo Sports asked five other players who attended Wednesday’s Pac-12 Media Day to react to the study. The only one who had heard of it was just vaguely aware of it.
Informed of the results of the study, each player had a similar reaction. They love football so much that they’re willing to accept the safety risks associated with playing it, including the threat of a degenerative brain injury that has been linked to acts of random violence, acute depression and suicide.
“You make the decision to play football, and you have to accept the good and bad with that,” UCLA linebacker Kenny Young said. “I play football and I play linebacker. I’m tackling or hitting somebody every single play. The only thing you can control is how you do it. Do you want to be the guy that knocks people out every single play for entertainment? Or are you that guy that cares about your longterm health?”
For players willing to assume the risks of playing college football, the good news is that the sport is far more conscious of the threat of brain injuries than it once was. The NCAA has implemented a handful of changes in the past decade designed to protect players and ensure the longterm survival of the sport.
In 2010, the NCAA mandated that institutions educate student-athletes about head injuries and establish procedures to identify, diagnose and treat concussions. The NCAA has also reduced the permissible number of full-contact practices and strengthened the consequences of the targeting penalty that protects a player from having his head targeted by an opposing defender.
The challenge for safety-conscious coaches is that head injuries aren’t always easy to identify and players may not self report them, either because they’re unaware or because they’re afraid of being removed from the game. When Alsadek sustained his lone concussion in Oct. 2015 against Washington, he admitted he played an entire quarter before realizing something wasn’t right and alerting the Arizona coaches he needed to come out of the game.
“There was a point in time that I literally don’t remember anything,” Alsadek said. “I stayed in the game because I’d never had a concussion and I had no idea I had one. All of a sudden, I sort of come back into my body and I’m like, ‘What is wrong? I don’t know where I’m at.”
A longterm solution could be sensors in the helmet or mouthguard that identify when a player sustains a blow to the head, but such technology still needs fine tuning in most cases. For now, coaches can only try to remain vigilant during practices and games while also fostering a culture in which players feel comfortable self-reporting head injuries.
“Our first year here, we had a young man that definitely had an issue on the field during a game,” Oregon State coach Gary Andersen said. “I ran out to the numbers and grabbed him. The official looked at me like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I was like, ‘We’ve got to get this kid out of the game.’ So you can’t see everything as a coach, but when you see something like that, you’ve got to act.”
In the past few years, a handful of Pac-12 players have retired from football because of the accumulation of concussions. The most recent was heralded Stanford offensive lineman Clark Yarbrough, who called it the hardest decision he has ever made in an Instagram post earlier this month.
“I have always had lofty aspirations outside of football and for what I hope to be the better, concussions have begun this new chapter of my life,” Yarbrough wrote. “The worst part of this thing is that I will never know if continuing to play would have seriously affected my long term health, and that is something I will never let go of. With that being said, I can walk away from this knowing that I am making a mature decision and moving forward my life will be entirely what I make of it.”
Most of Yarbrough’s peers will keep playing despite the risks. They’ll focus on proper tackling technique or making would-be tacklers miss. And they’ll hope that the rule changes implemented over the past decade make the game safer.
“It’s scary because this is your life,” Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay said. “It’s your head, your brain. But you sign up for this sport knowing you’re running that risk. You just hope that you can stay healthy.”
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