Cullum tells a story about a mother who had two daughters, both of them high school soccer players.
The girls had each suffered a concussion or two, but the mother didn’t worry much till one of her daughters got a third. That seemed like too many to her. The mother wasn’t sure, but she thought maybe three concussions crossed some kind of line.
“Should we stop this?” she wondered.
To her mother’s great relief, the daughter decided herself that she’d had enough of soccer and opted to join her high school debate club instead. One day the girl was on a break at a national competition when, without warning, a boy from one of the other teams came racing into the room. He was flailing his arms, as teenage boys are sometimes wont to do, and by chance, his elbow connected with the girl’s temple.
“She was out cold,” Cullum says. “Her worst concussion ever — at a debate tournament.”
Being the sort of expert he is, Cullum is often approached by worried parents who wonder if they should pull their kids out of sports — or never let them play in the first place. Often this question is followed up with: “Would you let your own kids play sports?”
He did. Both of Cullum’s kids participated in extracurricular athletics. Photo evidence lines the wall behind his desk. His daughter participated in ballet, and though she didn’t suffer any concussions while dancing, her brother played both football and soccer and, yes, had his fair share of hits and concussions in those sports. When Cullum hears concerned parents say that they’d never let their kids play certain sports, he points out that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the No. 1 concussion risk for people under the age of 20 is falling off a bicycle. He asks those parents if they ever plan to let their kids ride bikes.
“Where do you reel this in?” he asks. “What are the risks versus benefits? We all need to do the things we enjoy. Being active and being out there is, I think, more important. It’s certainly worth some of the risks. Being a couch potato and sedentary has its own serious health risks.”
He still thinks that the game of football needs to make improvements. In the early 20th century, football was a rough-and-tumble sport known for its hard hits, injuries, and occasional deaths: Between 1900 and 1905, at least 45 people died from playing. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt held a meeting that brought coaches and athletic personnel together to devise strategies for making football slightly less brutal — and fatal.
These were the first measures taken to make the sport safer, though the NFL didn’t even require helmets until 1943. And while helmets do much to reduce player death, they don’t prevent concussions. In fact, a helmet can enhance a player’s feelings of invincibility. And when a linebacker or a fullback feels invincible, that probably means more concussions, not fewer.
“There’s data indicating that we can make safer helmets,” Cullum says. “We definitely can, to some extent, but you’re never going to have a concussion-proof helmet.”
Instead, football teams and leagues need to teach proper tackling techniques and increase penalties for dangerous plays. Fortunately, all 50 states have a return-to-play policy that removes kids suspected of having concussions from the field for a period of time. A Texas law passed in 2011 dictates that players with head injuries be removed from play for at least a week and need clearance from a doctor.
“That’s a step in the right direction,” Cullum says.
Despite his field of study and the work he’s done surrounding concussions, Cullum is an avid sports watcher — though he admits he’s never excited to see a brutally hard hit, and he gets worried when hockey players fight. He cringes when he sees an NFL player get an especially hard hit or show signs of concussion.
“I watch sports with a little bit of a different eye,” Cullum says. “But I still enjoy it.”