Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sport and public health

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

Is sport becoming a public health problem? And if it is, do we, as members of the sports community, have a duty to address that problem?

This a tough question being addressed at multiple levels of sport. In Sunday's New York Times, they address the issue of knee injuries in female athletes, who are five times more likely than men to face ACL injuries. And those injuries have the potential to create osteoarthritis 10 or 15 years down the road. According to the Times:

"'This is more than a sports medicine problem,' said Dr. Edward Wojtys, the director of sports medicine at the University of Michigan. 'It’s becoming a public health problem.'

"A number of coaches and trainers have criticized youth development in sports, where far more attention is paid to winning and athletic skills than to injury prevention. [Connecticut's Geno] Auriemma and other coaches also wonder whether girls are reinforcing poor biomechanical behavior by specializing in a sport too soon."

In hockey, we're seeing growing concern about concussions. Boston Bruins center Mark Savard is suffering serious memory problems following a concussion, according to ESPN. He complains of being sleepy all the time, that things seem to move slower, and of depression. In a game where fighting has been a key part of the sport, the NHL now struggles with the health ramifications facing its multi-million dollar players.

In the NFL, where concussions are up 21 percent, the league is changing rules to try to reduce the problem. Kickoffs have been shortened. And the NFL now supports changes in laws to help protect young football players from head injuries.

But as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, it's going to require a change in culture to change our attitude toward injury in sport. We often see injury as an accepted risk of the game. But that attitude seems to ignore the player.

We need to put ourselves in the place of, say, football player Kort Breckenridge, whose story you can see at The New York Times site. The Idaho high school player suffered severe mental problems following multiple concussions. After listening to Breckenridge's slurred speech, no coach could say the young man's mental disorder was a fair outcome of a game of football.

And as a grandfather with a touch of arthritis in my hip, I can't imagine my granddaughter facing the same pain at age 30 simply because she wanted to play soccer or basketball. She deserves a game that maximizes the fun and educational value of sport, without placing her long-term health at risk. If that means better educated coaches who clearly understand the biomechanics of athletes, as Auriemma suggests, that should become a priority for sport. If that means new rules for sport down to the high school level, as Goodell suggests, that should become a priority, also.

Health is more important than a game. The game can survive changes of rules, but our kids may not survive intact if the hazards are not contained.

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