Death spirals – not just for skaters

Published On December 6, 2012 | By Alice Cook

It seems like every week there is another headline story on sports concussions.  The latest news had to do with a study conducted at Boston University.  On Monday, the Boston Globe dedicated most of their front page to the results of the study.  Later in the day it was all over network news. Basically, the researchers confirmed what many of us already believed to be true:  Concussions cause brain damage – and brain damage causes all kinds of problems for years to come.

The study was based on the autopsies of 85 brain donors, most of the them professional athletes.  Without getting too scientific, we learned more about the Alzheimer’s-like symptoms that are caused by blows to the head.  We discovered more about how concussions cause the destruction of brain cells, and can lead to death. What resonated most for me about the story was a remark made by the study’s leader Dr. Anne McKee during a network news interview. “Would you allow your own son to play football now that we know the results of your study?” was the reporter’s question.

Dr. McKee’s answer was, “I would have to think very seriously about that.”

I give credit to McKee for not blurting out a straight “no.”  Any parent with a kid that plays sports knows it’s not that easy. Concussions happen in football and hockey.  They also happen in non-helmet sports like soccer and basketball.  They happen in cheerleading, diving, and figure skating, too.

We have come a long way in awareness, that is for sure.  Ten years ago when my son started Pop Warner, our biggest worry as parents was not head injury.  Our biggest concern at the time was how our son would manage playing in two hockey leagues and football at the same time.  He still had homework to do after all.

As it turned out, our son dropped football after less than three weeks of practice.  He was a 90-pound ten-year-old playing against kids that could weigh up to 140 pounds.  He was getting killed out there – and had the welts on his arms and legs to prove it.  My sister, visiting from California, saw his bruises and asked, “Isn’t this kind of like child abuse?”  That was it.  We pulled him out, and he was more than okay with that.  But he kept at the hockey, and again, the worry was not concussions.  He broke a collar bone, spent a few months in a sling and went back at it.  I can’t remember one parent back then worried about concussions.

Now, with all the research and publicity, at least we are more aware.

The latest news out of the BU Center of Traumatic Encephalopathy  had me thinking about something else.

What about me?  As a figure skater, how many times did I hit my head on the ice?  How many times did I see other skaters knocked out and feeling nauseous?  The answer is too many.  It could happen learning a double axel or it could happen just forgetting to take your skate guards off getting on to the ice.  The feet go straight up from under you and the next thing you know you banged your head.  We felt embarrassed, not worried about concussions.

Skating coaches and parents would sometimes do the “eye pupil” check.  If the pupils in the skater’s eyes  didn’t look dilated you were good to go.

Figure skaters, like gymnasts, cheerleaders, spring board and platform divers are never going to wear helmets.  Maybe they should – but it will never happen.

When I switched from singles to pair skating at age 18 it was even worse.  Learning a death spiral (what a name) should have required a helmet. Learning how to land throw doubles and triple twists should have required a helmet and full padding.

The death spiral requires the female to  lean all the way back on one blade with one “free arm” and the other arm holding on to the partner’s grip.   The man leans back the other way in a pivot.  Learning how to do it meant  falling on your head … a lot.  Mastering a “throw” jump means many landings on your butt – which often continues with a slide into the boards.  The force of the impact will sometimes result in the head being the last part of the body to hit the rink barrier.

Anyone who thinks figure skating isn’t a sport, I invite you to watch a pairs training session. No costumes. No make-up.  No guts, no glory. My own mother was so traumatized watching an early pairs practice she had to leave the rink. She wasn’t the only parent who couldn’t bear to watch.

Cheerleading injuries are big news now. It used to be waving pom poms, but now it’s all about stunts.  My daughter started as a “flyer” (the one up in the air), and now she is a base. With each twist, lift, and basket catch there is the danger of head injury whether you are flying or basing. It comes with the territory, and cheerleaders are not likely to ever put on a helmet like the players on the field behind them.

So now we know the facts.  Some of us are hoping the undiagnosed concussions don’t mean problems later. There isn’t much we can do about it now.

Then there are the decisions we make as parents. How many kids are playing flag football instead of contact Pop Warner these days?  Many more. When we hear five kids suffered concussions in one Pop Warner game, it’s not just worrisome, it’s sickening.

The bottom line is we can’t all turn into chess players.  There is a danger in sports, and there is a danger in getting into a car every day.  I would not change a thing about spending my youth on the hard and unforgiving surface of ice.  In the end, the kids are going to play, the kids are going to get bigger, and they are going to keep playing. The super talented athletes will go on to play in college – the elite will make it a career.

There are many cold hard facts about concussions, and some extremely sad stories.  The games will go on, and thankfully, now when an athlete hits their head it’s taken seriously.  It’s a very big step for a problem that is changing the fabric of sports at every level, helmet or not.

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About The Author

is a veteran television sports reporter and Olympian. Her experience includes 25 years of sports reporting for WBZ-TV, the CBS and former NBC affiliate in Boston. Cook has worked for ESPN, Turner Sports, and WTBS. Cook is a feature writer for She's Game Sports and She is also President and Founder of She's Game Sports LLC.