As increased medical research has demonstrated the nature of and dangers related to concussions, sports leagues have moved to protect their players from the long term health risks associated with sustained brain damage. However, as steps are taken to protect athletes from concussions, the greatest obstacle to progress may come from an unlikely source: the athletes themselves.
Though measures taken to protect concussed athletes are done primarily to protect the players themselves, many of these athletes are likely to view their interests differently. The Associated Press found that nearly 25 percent of surveyed NFL players admitted to hiding or playing down head injuries.
There are a multitude of reasons for athletes to play down and disregard head injuries. In many of the sports where head injuries are most prevalent, there is a culture of toughness where athletes take pride in playing through injuries. Complaining, worrying and reporting problems are viewed as weaknesses.
Perhaps more importantly, there are strong financial incentives for athletes to disregard concussions. In sports like football and hockey, even the lowest paid players are making hundreds of thousands of dollars and their ability to make a comparable amount of money in another line of work is practically nil. Players who report head injuries are less likely to be re-signed in the short term and in the long term are more likely to be branded injury prone.
These problems are magnified in sports where athletes are paid less. Combat sports such as boxing, mixed martial arts and kickboxing don’t pay low end competitors hundreds of thousands of dollars. They often have to keep taking fights just to make ends meet, which creates every incentive to ignore the risks of repeated concussions.
Finally, there is the natural human instinct to value short term considerations over long term considerations. Top level athletes spend many years perfecting their craft and only have a finite amount of time that they can compete at a high level. Weighed against that are serious health consequences that will gradually get worse over time. Fame, fortune and glory are in the immediate future, while the worst of the downside is far off in the distance.
Given the strong disincentives for many athletes to concern themselves with concussions, research and education becomes all the more imperative. Athletes need to fully understand the health risks associated with severe head trauma in order to become sufficiently concerned.