Smashed in the Head with a Sledgehammer

Curator's Note

The video clip from ESPN Sport Science focuses on concussions in football, especially the physics of head-to-head collisions. The clip begins by detailing the number of concussions that occur in football every year – 100,000 – but quickly centers on the science of what happens in the NFL. The key moment? When the announcer declares a collision to be the "equivalent of getting smashed in the head with a sledgehammer."

When it comes to the media coverage of concussions and head trauma within sports, the great majority has focused on professional athletes. The value of this type of story is that it brings greater exposure to the issue, which has led to improved medical protocols and equipment for athletes. The negative is that the coverage isn’t actually focused on the people who play the most. Last year, there were approximately 1,700 men who played professional football. That number pales in comparison to how many young men play college football, high school football, and in leagues for younger players, most notably Pop Warner. All together, these leagues add up to millions of young football players between the ages of 6-18.

Young players have neither the body mass nor the speed of professional players and the physics involved are not as severe as that shown in the clip. But while the collisions are not as brutal, the accumulated impact of them can be devastating. Dr. Ann McKee of the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University argues that players experience thousands of sub-concussive hits during a season and that the frequency and the accumulation of these mild repetitive injuries are what pose the biggest risk.[1] The danger is obviously great for pros, but it is also substantial for players at all levels. Sub-concussive hits are tantamount to what happens during a low-speed vehicular accident. Each individual one might not be the equivalent of getting smashed in the head with a sledgehammer, but they certainly add up. Changes in how the game is played need to occur that will benefit the greatest amount of players of the game, not just the paid ones.

[1] Tim Cronin, "Doctor: Football Must Change Rules to Protect Players," Chicago Sun-Times, May 16, 2011:


The bigger the players and the bigger the hit, the bigger the highlight.  It's a self-congratuatory gesture to address the issue if you can do so after watching a "sledgehammer'esque" hit--  you get to talk about the issue while still fetishizing the "big play."  The sub-concussive hits don't make for good print and thus probably don't contribute to the conversation as much. 

And again, as discussed earlier this week, this may detract from the sympathy one exercises to the issue.  It's easy to watch the pros hammer each other endlessly and scoff "meh, they get paid millions, they know the risks!"  However, there are thousands, nay millions, who expose themselves to this risk daily, some just to be part of the "play" that they know won't lead to an actual career.

I think Stephen hits on an excellent point, which is that we need to de-mythologize the "one big play" and understand that there is plenty of collected damage that likely plays into most serious head trauma.  The "big hit" is not a magical thing, it's actually a logical cumulative result of what came before it.


I think Stephen really highlights an interesting aspect of head injury here, being that the degree of head injury doesn't seem to be as clear in focus as it should be. We don't hear much about the grade of the concussion, as head injury has come more into focus it appers that the term concussion has become enough to define head trauma. SLI's research into the effects of repeated sub-concussive hits is staggering when realizing (as Stephen pointed out so well) that we are encouraging millions to engage in an activity that promotes them with every play.. not just "the big play"

Just as we're doing our best to bring the discussion about traumatic head injury more to the forefront, doesn't that also require an expanded vocabulary on the topic for the general public?  "Grade II Concussion" does a better job than "Got my bell rung.." but maybe we need more than that. 

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.