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Guest Post: Stepping Up to the Plate: The Role of Research in Concussions

2013 February 15

By: Dr. Jimmy Sanderson

If you have not read Concussions and Our Kids: America’s Leading Expert on How to Protect Youth Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe by Dr. Robert Cantu and Mark Hyman, you absolutely need to.

I assigned this book to my Advanced Sports Communication students at Clemson University and as we discussed this book in class, I was struck by the role that communication plays in the concussion issue, and the need for academics, in particular communication researchers to get more involved. Clearly, the medical research community is leading the way, but I hope to advance some areas that I feel warrant attention and discussion in the concussion conversations that are currently getting little, if any attention.

One of the arguments Cantu and Hyman make in their book is that we, as a society, need to engage in honest dialogue about sports and how to make them safer. It seems to me this is not happening, so why not? My experiences with classroom discussions suggest that we are reluctant to give up the cherished traditions we associate with sports, in particular, football. Why is this so? Is it because our fan identity becomes so important that we rationalize safety issues with statements like “that’s what they signed up for?” We need to ask why we are so resistant to have these discussions? Understanding that will help move much needed dialogue further.

For example, the Sports Legacy Institute issued a press release during the Super Bowl calling for high schools to end full-contact drills during the off-season. This is likely to be a difficult discussion for high school principals and athletic directors to have with parents and coaches, particularly as the chief criticism of this move is that it would skew competitive balance. What kinds of persuasive messages could be constructed to achieve parent support?

The role of the media in the concussion discussion cannot be discounted. There has certainly been an increase in the attention and coverage being given to concussions. However, one of the more notable comments about concussions came from former player Deion Sanders when he asserted during the Super Bowl pre-game that many players involved in the concussion litigation against the NFL are in it for the money and not for health issues. There is debate about how persuasive the media is in changing people’s opinions, but they clearly play a role in what people think about – known as agenda-setting, based on the frequency and positioning of news stories. We need to be paying close attention to how concussions are being talked about in the media, especially, how those who are suing the NFL are framed. Are they portrayed as greedy, as Deion suggests? Or is health and safety being featured?

Parent identity is another very relevant issue here. Many parents are heavily invested in their children’s sporting experiences. There is nothing wrong with this, but it can become detrimental. Dr. Lindsey Mean and Dr. Jeffrey Kassing conducted a research study of parent behavior at sporting events and found that a prominent message enacted by parents was to downplay injuries (e.g., “shake it off”) or my personal favorite, “you still have four fingers.” Certainly there are parents who put their children’s safety first, but clearly there are those who do not. Understanding how parent identity supersedes the health and welfare of their children when playing sports absolutely needs more attention.

Whereas there are parents who do value health and safety, these parents may face difficulty in communicating these issues to coaches, particularly if the coaches are confrontational. Clearly there are parents who have no issues with this, but what about those that do not? What kinds of strategies and messages can be used to help parents feel more confident in approaching coaches and league officials to discuss safety issues? Do tools like the Heads Up app from USA Football help parents feel more confident in both identifying concussions but also addressing them with coaches? These questions need answers!

At the end of the day, people need to realize the concussion issue is not going away. While much of the attention is focused on the collegiate and professional levels, there is a great need to examine what is happening at the youth level. Do parents consider flag football as an alternative? Why or Why Not? Do sports leagues offer any education about concussions and head trauma? Why or Why Not?

The research agenda is lengthy to be sure, but making this research a priority will ensure that scholars are acting in the public interest. Time to get to work!

Dr. Jimmy Sanderson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Clemson University. His research centers on the influence of social media and sports with particular emphases on sports media, sports organizations, and communicate between athletes and fans and he is beginning research on concussion and health issues in sports. His work has appeared in multiple academic journals and he also is the author of It’s a Whole New Ballgame: How Social Media is Changing Sports published by Hampton Press. Connect with him on Twitter @Jimmy_Sanderson

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