EDITOR'S NOTE: This corrects the year of Aikman's concussion. It was in the 1993 season, in a game played Jan. 1994.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Famed Newport Beach sports agent Leigh Steinberg, whose career partially inspired the film "Jerry Maguire," has agreed to write a weekly column for the Daily Pilot. This is his first.
In 1994, I saw something that terrified me after the Dallas Cowboys defeated the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship.
Troy Aikman, the winning quarterback, suffered a concussion and I visited him that night in a darkened hospital room at Baylor Medical Center in downtown Dallas.
The city was awash with celebration, horns honking, fireworks in the sky. Troy greeted me with a confused look on his face.
"Where am I?" he asked. "Did I play today? How well did I play? Did we win? Are we going to the Super Bowl?"
I answered the questions and his face brightened. Five minutes later, he looked at me in confusion and asked the same questions again and I answered before he smiled.
But five minutes later he asked the same questions once again as if we had never talked. I became terrified at the toll a concussion took on the tender thread separating sentient consciousness from dementia.
I vowed to explore ways to protect the health of athletes that I had a fiduciary duty to protect. Much more profound issues than their bankbook were at stake. This affects memory and cognition and what it means to be human.
This largely undiagnosed health epidemic is sweeping athletic fields across the country. It is posing a threat to athletes in every age group.
There are millions of diagnosed concussions and many times more that aren't correctly detected and treated. The families of the impacted athletes need to take an active role in pushing awareness, prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
The risk has become more urgent because the actual physics of collision are being amplified. Larger, stronger, faster athletes are colliding, which produces a much more impactful and damaging hit. I fear that offensive and defensive lineman in football are involved in thousands of low-level concussions at the commencement of every play. The symptoms may not show up for years.
We need to stop glorifying hits to the head in media and DVD and realize the short- and long-term dangers of collisions in sports. We need more awareness, education, research, prevention and the most cutting edge treatment for the victims.
There has been little progress since that night with Troy. More is needed.
Back in the early 90s, I convened a player safety conference in Newport Beach and invited leading neurologists, helmet manufacturers and turf designers to meet with athletes like Troy, Warren Moon, Steve Young, Drew Bledsoe and Rob Johnson. We wanted to illuminate the state of the knowledge surrounding head injuries.
We proposed changes in blocking and tackling with the head, elimination of Astroturf, a neurologist on the sidelines, helmet research, and a mandated mode of ranking concussions and sitting out future contests. Not much changed.
Four years ago we did more conferences with Dr. Tony Strickland and the Sports Concussion Institute. Neurologists and researchers like Dr. Julian Bailes, Dr. Robert Cantu, Dr. David Hovda and Kevin Gusciewicz had actual studies.
Three appears to be the magic number of head injuries that puts an athlete at exponentially higher risk of premature senility, Parkinson's and a 40% chance of depression.
We were able to spread this news across the nation and the new commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, assembled a physicians' conference to consider the issue, and issued a "whistleblowers edict" encouraging players to report other players they thought were showing symptoms.
A concussion requires the athlete to be honest about symptoms. There is no obvious physical impairment or a cast on the head. So athletes are often dishonest or unaware of their symptoms.
Dr. Mark Lovell, University of Pittsburgh sports medicine expert, developed an objective test and the concept of baseline testing. Before the season starts, an athlete takes a cognitive test. If he becomes impaired because of a hit, he is tested again. There finally is an objective way of measuring the degree of impairment.
Baseline testing is now mandated for the NFL and NHL. It should be mandatory and provided in every college and high school in the country. I went to the California Superintendent of Instruction and the CIF medical committee several years ago to urge mandating baseline testing. A test for even younger athletes is being developed.
The adolescent brain is at higher risk for long-term impact from concussions.
It may take a teen three times longer to recover from concussion symptoms than an older athlete.
We need to teach these young athletes safer techniques to block and tackle. Strengthening neck muscles helps. The DHA/EPA vitamin may help.
Certain athletes suffer from a genetic allele that predisposes them to concussion, and a syndrome that leads to depression and even suicide. They need to be counseled not to enter sports with collisions.
The brain is a precious thing to waste.