As a former professional athlete, I’ve suffered my share of injuries on the field, including concussions, and I know the challenges first-hand. That’s why raising awareness for brain health among athletes of all ages, especially young people, is very important to me. I think we owe it to future generations to develop and integrate better assessment tools for brain health.
According to a report from the CDC, roughly half a million kids are treated in emergency rooms each year for brain injuries, including concussions. We need to bring those numbers down. Young athletes who manage to return to the game too soon after a concussion increase their risk of secondary brain injury. And while standard concussion protocols in professional sports have dramatically improved, coaches and physicians still have to rely on subjective tools to determine when it’s safe for a player to get back in the game.
During my 11 year career in the NFL as a running back, I've taken some pretty hard hits that resulted in numerous injuries from head to toe. Though many of my injuries were pretty severe, I was the type of guy who rarely came out of the game. My commitment to winning, paired with my high threshold for pain, prevented me from being responsible with my body, particularly my head.
After a hard hit, I remember going through a battery of subjective tests to determine whether or not I had suffered a concussion. For example, the doctor asked me to follow his finger with my eyes, count backwards from ten, remember a sequence of words, etc. I knew the protocol so well that I was able to cheat the test every time, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
What’s difficult about concussions is that they don't necessarily hurt and they’re different for everybody, so it’s tough to tell that something’s happened. Back when I played, leaving the game for a suspected concussion was viewed as almost laughable amongst players. Most of us shook it off as being woozy. If I appeared hurt or disoriented after a play, my teammates would pick me up and shake me to help me get my bearings. I was usually able to walk it off by the time we got back to the huddle. But, on the rare occasion that I was too disoriented to stay on the field, I came back into the game as soon as I was no longer dizzy.
With the use of new technologies, concussion diagnosis might no longer be solely subjective. This is especially helpful for players who, like myself, may not be as responsible with their brain health as they should be. Tools that give us the ability to see the injury directly allow coaches and physicians to make an objective diagnosis instead of an educated guess. It takes the responsibility out of the hands of the players.
If objective resources were available during my career, I believe I would have made better choices. My coaches and doctors would have had more information about my brain and its function, and they would have been able to determine whether or not there were abnormalities. These details would have impacted my decision to play.
Thanks to the rule changes, new protocols, and educational awareness in the game today, head injuries are taken just as seriously as torn ACL's, or broken bones. The increased awareness, education and research aimed at brain health in sports today is a major step forward.
In conversations with NFL leadership, coaches, educators, physicians and parents across the country, I’ve shared my experiences with concussions and have been actively advocating for the introduction of new tools that reveal objective information about brain injuries to the sport. These new advances in brain health technology, along with the NFL's implementation of several concussion precautions (instituted concussion spotters, improved sideline testing and strict protocols) can make the game much safer than when I played.
Oftentimes, the tremendous pressure to perform, coupled with a player's ego, can impair their ability to make appropriate decisions of their own well-being, and proper tests help remove the burden of choice from players. Adding advanced brain technologies to the management of player’s health has the potential to shift the culture of the game to ensure safety of the sport, both short-term and long-term.
I never stopped to think about my brain health until my career was over, but if I can inspire others to be mindful of their brain health at an early age, then it was all worth it!
Curtis Martin is a former NFL Hall of Fame Running Back who played for the New York Jets & New England Patriots and currently serves on the Sports Advisory Board for Brain Network Activation.