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Vonn concussion race: NFL players aren’t the only athletes who deserve better protection

February 16, 2011 – 11:36 AM

By Laura Pappano

It’s February and Lindsey Vonn is in the news. Again.

Unlike last year, when we debated whether or not she was exploited by an SI swimsuit spread, this year she has just won the silver medal in the downhill world championships in Garmisch-Paertenkirchen, Germany – while skiing in a self-described “fog after being officially cleared to race after suffering a concussion.

Another form of exploitation?

Vonn’s experience – detailed by NY Times writer Alan Schwarz who has made a crusade of reporting on concussions – should be a call to get serious. We know that concussions don’t just happen in football.

In his piece, Schwarz writes that during the race Vonn actually felt that, “My head just isn’t thinking fast enough. I can’t process the information fast enough, and that gets me behind on the course. My body is one gate ahead of where my mind is and that’s not a good way to ski.”

The “tests” that cleared her to compete were clearly inadequate. For Vonn – as for athletes at all levels of play – we have to create more rigorous tests and more stringent guidelines. And stick to them.

After long dismissing concussions as “dings” and the natural by product of play, the NFL this season got even more serious. Key players sat out (including Aaron Rodgers who went on to become the Super Bowl MVP).

Sure, the NFL was pressured to do this because of growing public discomfort with news stories of retired NFL players struggling with memory loss, depression, basic mental functioning – even some committing suicide. The NFL is too big to hide.

But will anyone care about Lindsey Vonn’s mental state when she’s 50? What about college and high school athletes?

This is not a gender issue. It is not about weakness or toughness. It is about the nature of the sports that we play – and the speed and intensity with which they are played. A study published in the Jan. 29, 2011 issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine tracked concussions in high school athletes for 11 years. Results show an increase over time (though is this just better reporting?) AND that in sports played by girls and boys that girls suffer concussions at the same or higher rates. All-male sports of football and lacrosse accounted for 75% of all concussions.

The NFL acted because the league knows that as much as fans love the game’s hard-hitting violence they are jarred by the long-term effects.

The NFL may be protecting its product by protecting its players.

But without $30-plus billion dollars at stake, who will look out for all the other athletes?

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