Are we appropriately framing the risks of brain trauma in contact sports?

By Christine Baugh

The recent concussion and sport special issue of the Journal of Law Medicine and Ethics (generously made available free by the American Society of Law Medicine and Ethics: HERE), edited by new Bill of Health contributor David Orentlichter,  includes a number of important works discussing legal and ethical issues related to mild traumatic brain injury sustained through sport. One of the most thought provoking articles in the issue is a piece by Kathleen Bachynski and Daniel Goldberg titled Youth Sports & Public Health: Framing Risks of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury in American Football and Ice Hockey. This piece delves into the important issues of cultural and normative influences on the framing (and thus public understanding) of the risk of brain injury in sport. At the heart of the paper is the assertion that, “The framing of risk is not a neutral, apolitical enterprise,” and that in the United States and Canada highly influential institutional actors such as football and ice hockey leagues have played a formative role in the cultural valuation of the risks inherent in these activities.

Bachynski and Goldberg provide a variety of examples where the overarching questions such as “Are contact sports too risky?” or “What is an appropriate level of risk?” are deferred for easier alternatives. Addressing more focal issues are: State concussion laws which mandate secondary prevention measures, advancement in protective equipment which promises to mitigate risk of injury, rule changes made by sports leagues which aim to make inherently dangerous activities somewhat less dangerous. Rather than addressing the broader risk questions, the implicit assumption in these more focused efforts is that risks are acceptable as long as they are managed. Through what Bachynski and Goldberg assert are concerted efforts on behalf of major stakeholders (e.g., major sports leagues), this has been the predominant frame for risk assessment in contact sports.

Unfortunately, this method of framing risks is not without consequences. Bachynski and Goldberg argue that this framing may alter our understanding of the scope of the problem as well as the most appropriate interventions or solutions. This frame may also inappropriately downplay the need to address the broader moral, social, and political questions that arise from concussions in contact sports. For example, the authors pose the following question, “At what age can players consent to risks of head trauma and associated elevated risks of chronic degenerative neurological disease?”

Answering this question could require a complex weighing of the scientific evidence of the long-term risk of neurodegeneration and balancing it against a variety of factors such as the paternalistic desire to control the population’s ability to partake in self-injurious behavior and the need to protect an individual’s autonomy. (We do, after all, regularly let individuals partake in other dangerous activities—e.g., downhill skiing or driving a car.) We would need to think about questions such as: Should we treat the risk of brain injury differently than bodily injury? Should the risk of delayed or chronic injury be weighed differently given humans’ known difficulty in assessing risk in the distant future? What does scientific evidence have to say about the nature of the risk across age ranges? However, under the current framing these questions are not the ones being addressed. Bachynski and Goldberg’s article elucidates the first step toward addressing concussions from sport: appropriately framing the problem.

[This post reflects my own views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]

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