Sponsors need to support athletes through somewhat-inevitable head injuries

Last October, former professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce returned to Park City for the second time since his career-ending accident documented in the 2013 Sundance film “The Crash Reel.” On Dec. 31, 2009, Kevin suffered a serious traumatic brain injury in the Park City Mountain Resort superpipe while training in preparation for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Kevin has spent the last few years working to recover from this injury. While he now presents as a competent lecturer, the injury has prevented him from returning to professional snowboarding.

During his recent visit, Kevin spoke about the events leading up to his critical injury. He showed footage of several Dec. 31, 2009, qualifying runs, noting that at that time he was already “badly concussed.”

“I totally was able to convince everybody I was fine … the brain can hide [injury] so well,” he said.

Kevin said he believes his athletic ability and judgment were affected by this previous concussion.

Kevin’s sentiment about hidden brain injury matches up with the findings from a 2013 study done in New Zealand on the incidence of TBIs in both urban and rural populations. The study’s findings “suggest that the incidence of TBI … is far greater than would be estimated from the findings of previous studies done in other high-income countries.” Based on available medical records of reported TBIs, the CDC estimates that 1.7 million people sustain a TBI in the United States annually. The difficulty in identifying deficits associated with TBIs and their prevalence has led some researchers to refer to them as “the hidden epidemic.”

I’ve spent the last three years working in a consulting capacity with a neuropsychology office that specializes in treating TBI patients. It’s become apparent to me that much of the available treatment for TBIs involves symptomatic treatment; many patients never fully recover from their injuries. Many direct treatments, like hyperbaric medicine, are still relatively untested and in a developmental stage. While the fields of neuropsychology and neurosurgery offer much in the way of symptomatic treatment, it’s clear that the permanent costs of living with a TBI need to be taken into account whenever an occurrence of the injury is likely.

For most of us, this means taking preventative measures like wearing a helmet or a seat belt when appropriate. For the sports industry, this means accepting athlete TBIs as a matter of fact and not attempting to redistribute this substantial risk to the athletes themselves. “The Crash Reel” touches on the stories of several other extreme sports athletes who have sustained TBIs, noting that sponsors rarely choose to support their athletes through critical injuries.

While no injury was involved, the question of profiting off athlete risk in the extreme sports community has recently been raised by Clif Bar’s dropping of pro climber Alex Honnold following the release of the film “Valley Uprising,” which heavily featured Honnold. The company cited Honnold’s risk-taking as the reason for dropping the athlete, which is remarkable since the athlete’s stunts were used as marketing material to promote the brand. Pearce is an exception in that his sponsors have stuck with him following his accident. For example, the costs of the late pro skier Sarah Burke’s hospitalization for a brain injury and heart attack sustained during training had to be covered by a fundraiser.

Brands that profit off marketing materials featuring sporting activities where the occurrence of injuries like TBIs is likely need to accept that supporting their athletes post-injury should be part of their sponsorship. Expecting athletes to devote their careers to sports that will cause some of them permanent, debilitating injury and failing to account for covering this cost is insincere and unethical.

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