by: Aaron Kasinitz   6/5/2012

Every few years a groundbreaking controversy emerges to dominate the landscape of American sports and often transcend its culture. On May 2, when 20-year NFL veteran Junior Seau died of an apparent suicide just hours after the NFL announced the punishment for the players involved in the Saints bounty program, it became glaring evident that such an issue was present in 2012.

While the concern over the effects of hits to the head on long-term brain damage had been steadily growing before this year, the events of May 2 took the topic to new heights. There has been plenty of debate on how prominent those effects of concussions and head injuries are, but I’m not writing to take a side on that argument; let’s just agree that the scientific evidence collected over the past few years undeniably concludes that there is at least some long-term negative impact of taking hits to the head.

Now that science has helped us reach that conclusion it is time to broaden the issue. The issue of concussions and brain damage impacts all contact sports, so why don’t we shift the spotlight of this controversy away from the NFL and place it on a sport in which the problem is just as relevant, but not as highly publicized?

A sport like rugby.

Rugby is just as physical and violent as football and the players have even less protection. Since the D.C. area has a nationally recognized high school rugby program at Gonzaga, we should be a group that pioneers the shift of focus on this issue.

“The science has really proven how great the effects of concussions can be and we have a lot of knowledge now,” said Gonzaga coach Peter Baggettta, who is also involved in Research in Sports Expertise Development and Neurocognitive Science. “We have to take the necessary steps to help the athletes now that we have that we have that knowledge.”

At Gonzaga, they are on top of the concussion issue. Baggetta has his trainers run players through a baseline concussion test before they can return to the field after a hit to the head. The Gonzaga rugby players also need to complete a confidence in contact course that shows them how to take and give hits properly.

All of this falls into Baggett’s theory that educating is the key to addressing this controversy.

“Everyone involved needs to be educated and trained,” Baggetta said. “The doctors have done a good job finding things out so now we need to build the awareness of players, coaches, and officials.”

Baggetta puts some blame on the poor quality of the fields, as well as a lack of awareness, for the high number of concussions in his sport and points out that at high quality events the number of concussions is reduced.

He said, “During our 10-day tour in Europe we had a lot of injuries, but no concussions. Why? There was all nice grass fields and top notch officiating, it was a first class event and as a result we had no concussions.”

Due to the sports violent nature concussions in rugby will never be completely avoided, but the lack of a concussion throughout that European tour proves that steps can be taken to improve the situation in the United States.

In addition, more research needs to be done on the effects of concussions and on how concussions occur.

For example, as Baggetta points out, there is no conclusive study on how turf fields may cause or limit concussions. We need to figure that sort of thing out to best protect athletes from the effects of hits to head, and since we have the resources to do so there is no reason that we shouldn’t examine every possible aspect of this situation.

That’s where the popularity of the NFL can help rugby and other less prominent sports.

“The NFL has really pioneered the efforts to research concussions and their effects,” said Baggetta. “It doesn’t matter what sport is in the forefront, but the issue effects all contact sports so if research is being done all the sports benefit.”

Lately the topic has become increasingly more prominent in the public eye as NFL players claim they don’t want their sons playing football and lawsuits are filed against the NFL for failure to educate former players on the impact of concussions.

The controversy revolving around the long-term impact of hits to the head won’t go away anytime soon, but that should be seen as a bad thing, despite the negative impact it may have on the NFL’s bank account. This issue needs to be in the forefront of the minds of coaches, referees, players, and parents of players in order to protect the athletes’ future health; the fact that issue has been highly publicized forces those people to be constantly conscious of it.

But while we watch the lawsuits unfold and hear the debates on sports talk radio, we have the responsibility, as a society, to acknowledge that hits to the head can impact any athlete, not just the ones on our TVs.