WASHINGTON – Centennial High School's Alison Conca-Cheng is a best-case scenario: After suffering a concussion while playing soccer last month, she was diagnosed, put on a "care plan" and started on her path to recovery.
Her school in Ellicott City was accommodating and her doctors knowledgeable, she told the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor recently, and she's making progress.
Conca-Cheng's testimony was part of a hearing on the Protecting Student Athletes from Concussions Act, introduced this week by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and designed to protect young athletes from the permanent neurological effects of concussions. It would require school districts to implement a concussion safety plan and to better educate students on the dangers of the brain-bruising injury.
"Concussions have always been a part of the conversation about student athletes," Miller said. "But for far too long, we've talked about what has happened without taking any action to help students manage these dangerous habits."
Conca-Cheng, 17, an honors student from Ellicott City, said it took several weeks to be definitively diagnosed, and in the interim she started to notice headaches and a lack of concentration that made class work in her five advanced placement classes nearly impossible. "I began to forget things. Not just day to day, but morning to evening, or even moment to moment," she said. "(Homework) would take me twice as long, and it would be a constant battle with my concentration."
The danger of long-term, concussion-related problems has slowly worked its way into the public eye as more sufferers, either undiagnosed or mistreated, begin to exhibit debilitating cognitive problems that are now being linked to concussions.
Experts said Owen Thomas was one of these cases. The University of Pennsylvania defensive end led the team in sacks in 2009 and was named second-team All-Ivy League. He killed himself in April and was found to have early signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a variant of boxer's dementia that makes some aging fighters seem "punchy."
His mother, the Rev. Katherine Brearley, said at the hearing that her son had no history of depression."Clearly changes are needed in the medical community as well as the sports community," Brearley said.
The National Football League has also been getting attention for its treatment of players with brain injuries, especially after Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry died under unclear circumstances last year. An autopsy revealed Henry had CTE, according to ESPN.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers player Sean Morey told the committee he'd "suffered more concussions than I care to admit" and was forced to retire just before the start of 2010 training camp because of chronic neurological symptoms.
Morey, 34, has been working with the NFL to increase player awareness of the dangers of concussions, a difficult task when a player getting sidelined could mean the difference between a crucial win and a loss. Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, for example, could be seen berating doctors on the sidelines of the Sept. 19 game in which he was pulled because trainers suspected a concussion.
Former NFL head coach Steve Mariucci said last November that there seemed to be an "epidemic" of concussions in the NFL but that they had always been present. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, he added, could have played "three or four more years" if it hadn’t been for his chronic concussions, including one Young received on what would be the last play of his career. "Even back when we played there were concussions – that's maybe why we're a little dingy right now. It's just more media awareness and attention to it," Mariucci said. "We're headed into some uncharted waters."