For College Athletes, Football Isn't Actually the Worst Sport for Concussions

News and views from academia.
Dec. 5 2013 12:30 PM

It's Not Just Football

Other college athletes are actually more likely to suffer concussions.

Field Hockey
According to a National Academy of Sciences report, field hockey sees a higher occurrence rate of concussions per athletic exposure than football does.

Photo by Andrea Pelletier/iStock/Thinkstock

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

When the Ivy League announced in the summer of 2011 that it would limit contact in football practices to minimize head trauma in athletes, the move was unprecedented. Since then, concerns about the long-term effects of concussions have bubbled to the surface of public discourse.

One other Division I conference has copied the Ivies so far, while other conferences have made other rules changes, and started long-term research projects on head trauma in athletes. Bolstered by the new rules, advocacy groups like All Players United, increased media attention for head trauma in the National Football League, and the deaths of football players who suffered from head trauma, calls for action in the sport whose revenue helps keep college athletic departments afloat have become impossible to ignore.

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But as researchers and policy makers know, concussions aren't only a danger in football—in fact, football isn't even the sport in which they present the greatest risk, at least in terms of frequency.

Football may have the highest number of concussions by sport because of the roster size, but many other sports see higher occurrence rates per athletic exposure. According to a National Academy of Sciences report released last month, field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, wrestling, ice hockey, and basketball have all proved about as dangerous or more so than football in recent years.

131205_HIED_ConcussionsChart

That's why, a year after the Ivy League decreed limited contact in football practice, its members did the same for  lacrosse, soccer, and ice hockey. The league, in conjunction with the Big Ten Conference, also launched a cross-institutional research project to study the effects of head injuries in multiple sports.

"We recognized all along that concussions are an issue that need to be addressed whenever they happen. It's not about the sport, it's about concussions any time," Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris said. "I know there's more conversation, as I'm sitting on the sideline at my daughter's soccer game."

Even lawmakers are asking questions. Just last week, Reps. Charlie Dent and Joyce Beatty held a panel on Capitol Hill on the effects of head trauma in athletes. This summer, the politicians introduced the National Collegiate Athletics Accountability Act, which would include a requirement for baseline concussion testing of all athletes.

“It’s hard to turn on ESPN and the news and listen for very long without hearing something about concussions,” said James T. Eckner, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Michigan. “Almost every state now has a concussion law in place that mandates athlete and coach education.”

Eckner is a co-investigator on the NCAA-funded National Sport Concussion Outcomes Study, which will include more than 1,000 students in 11 sports at three universities. While he and other experts agreed that there is a disproportionate (but not exactly “bad”) emphasis on head trauma in football, they also say intensified education efforts throughout all sports have helped address that.

“We’ve seen concussions in golfers and we wouldn’t want to manage it any differently,” Cohen said.

Last month, University of New Haven officials announced they would be the latest (following at least two other institutions) to use impact sensors to monitor head trauma in football players, and women's and men's soccer players. Women's lacrosse is next on the list.

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