AFCA convention offers alternative view on concussions

Dennis Dodd

Dennis Dodd

By Dennis Dodd/

INDIANAPOLIS — College football coaches’ answer to the concussion crisis is a former University of Texas cheerleader who believes brains can heal themselves.

Hey, why not? Not much else has seemed to soothe the nation’s fears. The concussion crisis has resulted in a public relations crisis. The numbers of those playing youth football are dwindling. Lawsuits are hitting the NCAA, NFL — even the national high school association — from all sides.

The American Football Coaches Association on Monday morning presented Dr. Sandra Chapman as a rebuttal in an ongoing debate that continues to erode the profession’s credibility.

“If you haven’t sensed it,” AFCA executive director Grant Teaff told an audience of about 500 coaches, “our game’s under attack.”

Chapman, then, was part of the counterattack. The founder and chief director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas-Dallas, is a cognitive neuroscientist. Her suggestion to Monday’s group was things aren’t as bad as the national narrative suggests.

“I want to change the conversation that you’re hearing,” she said during a session titled: The Future of Football: A Dose of Reality. “We’re showing a [positive] brain change [after injury], not in months and years but in literally hours.”

Sounds outlandish. It also sounds a bit Frankensteinian. Chapman used words like “regeneration” and “plasticity”. She showed slides that indicated that training injured brains to think in complex ways cause white matter (part of the brain’s learning center) to increase.

It wouldn’t be quite fair to call her a rent-an-expert. Chapman was not paid to speak by the AFCA. However, she did briefly promote a book as the session ended.

And in the complex maze of the concussion issue, it is possible these days to get any head trauma conclusion you want. All you have to do is pay for it.

This is Chapman’s unpaid, perhaps not unbiased view:

“The myth is brain damage is permanent,” she said. “The brain is capable of remarkable ability to be strengthened and rewired … If you were to read the front pages you would not believe this is true, but it is.”

The session was long on claims but short on specifics. Brain heal thyself? Chapman spoke of a Navy SEAL who suffered — and recovered from — 75 concussions. She referenced Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron who suffered a catastrophic head injury at a young age.

Chapman kept hammering home her central point: “The benefits of youth football to health and well being far, far exceed the risk of brain injury.”

There are some exceptions — big ones. Nothing can change the fact that football is a huge health risk. Chapman made the point that car accidents cause more severe head injuries than football. Well, yes, but the object of driving a car is not to ram heads together 85 times per game. Plus, we don’t have to play football. Society pretty much has to drive cars.

There is no helmet in the world that can fully protect the head. Numbers are down. Six percent fewer kids are playing youth football. There are at least three major lawsuits regarding concussions that name the NCAA as a defendant.

NCAA president Mark Emmert didn’t reference those suits and did not see Chapman’s presentation. But he did seem to sum up the current concussion climate later in the day.

The NCAA wants to make sure, “whatever decisions are made are based on real science and real best practices, not rumor and innuendo. The truth is, the science of concussions is pretty immature.”

It should be noted that the NCAA hasn’t consulted Chapman or her colleague Lori Cook, the Center for Brain Health’s Director of Pediatric Brian Injury Programs.

“At this point we think the NCAA has been the toughest nut to crack,” Cook said. “For whatever reason we hear that college football that’s been a little less at the table in terms of discussion of these things.”

Maybe that’s because the NCAA’s conclusions aren’t as evident as Chapman’s. Nor should they be given its constituency and implications. NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline is in his second year on the job. Last summer he told that diagnosis management of concussions are in a “primitive stage”.

On Monday, the message was that the brain can heal itself in a matter of hours.

Anyone else getting a mixed message?

If this issue has taught us anything it’s there is no magic bullet, doctor, conclusion or cure. Not yet.

There isn’t much Chapman’s methods can do for CTE — the infamous Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — a degenerative brain disease thought to be brought on by repeated blows to the head. But no one really knows for sure. The discovery of CTE in the last few years has spawned everything from documentaries, to lawsuits to studies that will take decades to complete.

What we don’t know, for sure, is what causes CTE. Is it football? Do PEDs contribute? Drug and/or alcohol abuse? And the question no one has been able to answer: Are some folks just genetically predisposed to head injuries?

Whether Chapman’s methods are enough to save college football from itself remains to be seen. For one, she’s a Ph.D., not a medical doctor.

“We pick up where basic medicine drops off,” she said. “Medicine will say, ‘You’ve got this concussion. Take this medicine.’ I’m a cognitive neuroscientist focused on how a brain learns, how it rewires.”

If it was only that easy.

Or maybe it is.