Road To The Olympic Games

Concussions: Is the reward worth the risk?

For Canada's high-performance athletes, who have a small window to reach the Olympics, the pressure to return too soon can be great.

‘Some athletes are afraid to voice how they're doing,’ says ski cross racer Kelsey Serwa

A Facebook live panel that included from left to right, host Scott Russell, Olympians Tara Whitten and Steve Podborski, Dr. Michael Cusimano, and CBC Sports reporter Jamie Strashin, tackled the concussion debate Friday. (CBC Sports)

When it comes to concussions and sports, the culture is supposed to be changing.

It's not supposed to be a sign of toughness if a player suffers a blow to the head and stays in the game. A woofzy player is not supposed to be told they simply "had their bell rung" and to get back on the field or ice.

That's how it's supposed to be. But two recent incidents reveal there is still a long way to go. Athletes who suffer suspected concussions still have their toughness questioned. Last month, UCLA quarterback and projected NFL first-round pick Josh Rosen left the game. At the time, Rosen's injury was unknown but it was eventually diagnosed as a concussion.

That didn't stop ESPN commentator Brock Huard, a former college and pro quarterback himself, from questioning how NFL teams might evaluate Rosen's toughness, pointing to former greats QB Drew Bledsoe and Brett Favre who competed with pins sticking out of fingers, and broken hands.

Live Panel Discussion hosted by Scott Russell featuring Olympian and neuroscientist Tara Whitten, Olympian and President & CEO of Parachute Canada Steve Podborski, Neurosurgeon and scientist at St. Michael's Hospital Dr. Michael Cusimano and CBC reporter Jamie Strashin 1:05:16

Rosen's coach, Jim Mora, slammed Huard.

"I think it's ludicrous that anyone would question Josh Rosen's toughness when they don't know the nature of his injury," Mora told reporters.

Thursday night, it was Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the spotlight.

Wilson suffered an apparent blow to the head and was sent by the referee to the sidelines to be evaluated.

NFL concussion policy states a player believed to have concussion symptoms cannot return to "practice or play" unless a team physician and an independent neurological consultant clear him.

In Wilson's case, he was never evaluated and returned to the game after missing only one play.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Cusimano and Olympian turned neuroscientist Dr. Tara Whitten weigh in on the problems with and benefits of baseline testing young athletes. 2:33

After the game, Wilson denied suffering a concussion, saying he had only suffered an injured jaw.

Both incidents highlight the difficulty and pressure around properly identifying and treating concussions.

The issue was central Friday as CBC Sports hosted a Facebook Live called Concussions: Is the reward worth the risk? The panel included Steve Podborski, president and CEO of Parachute Canada, Dr. Tara Whitten, Olympian and neuroscientist, and Dr. Michael Cusimano, neurosurgeon and scientist at St. Michael's Hospital.

The panel spoke about the importance of removing an athlete who has a suspected concussion from competition.

For Canada's high-performance athletes, who have a small window to reach the Olympics, the pressure to return too soon can be great.

A CBC Sports investigative study found that out of 142 Canadian 2018 Olympic hopefuls, 1/3 have experienced a suspected concussion in their career. 2:45

Whitten, a former cyclist, suffered a fractured skull and concussion months before the Rio Olympics.

"We don't know the long-term risks and that can make the decision making hard. If I go back too soon will I suffer long-term effects?" wonders Whitten, who earned a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. "I wasn't willing to risk my brain so I took the time to recover."

Whitten was able to compete in Rio. But as athletes know, competition is great and any extended absence could cost them a spot at the Olympics.

Freestyle skier and 2014 silver medalist in Sochi Kelsey Serwa, who suffered a concussion in 2015, believes a few athletes are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their spots on the team

"Our sport is so competitive, as are a lot of Olympic sports," Serwa says. "Some athletes are afraid to voice how they're doing inside, symptoms and stuff because there's depth in Canada, which is great but there's always people chomping at your heels."

Former skier and Olympian Podborski now works for a charity committed to preventing injury. Podborski said when it comes to concussions, it doesn't matter if somebody is competing for an Olympic spot or playing weekend softball. Recently released standards say any athlete, young or old, elite or amateur, should be removed from a game if a concussion is suspected.

"For a person over 18 it's a week [of rest] and it used to be that's the end of my season. Now, It's a Christmas break and we're back in the game," Podborski said.

"And if you're younger than 18, it's a month. You can get back faster. It's still a major injury because if you don't come out of the game and take that week or two weeks off, then the alternative is much worse."

Cusimano said attitudes are slowly shifting and that proper concussion treatment involves everybody around the player including parents, coaches and officials. But Cusimano said shifting perceptions around concussions has to extend further.

He points to the football commentator who questioned the UCLA quarterback's toughness as a negative to the concussion conversation.

"That commentator was heard by hundreds of thousands of kids. And a comment like that, that one comment can affect so many people."

About the Author

Jamie Strashin


Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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