How Big a Hit are You Willing to Take?

How Big a Hit are You Willing to Take? September 12, 2012

As you may recall, concussions in football is one of my hobbyhorses.  So of course I was interested when I saw that Kevin Cook had a NYT op-ed on the subject.  If you follow the topic, you’ve probably seen most of the data, but he had some interesting information about how the NFL screens players:

The N.F.L. now uses simple written or computerized cognitive tests to assess concussions. Before each season, players are shown a page featuring 20 words and asked to write down as many as they remember when the page is taken away. The same with 20 simple pictures: Draw as many as you can remember. Later, after an on-field hammering rings their mental bells, the pros take the same test. Match your baseline results or sit out.

Some players cheat. They purposely give wrong answers on the preseason baseline test in hopes of passing the test when they’re concussed. But no screening plan is foolproof, and this one has the virtue of simplicity.

I’m a methodology nerd, so I was obviously interested in how they were doing the test, and I’m a Bruce Schneier fan, so I’m also interested in the logistics of cheating, but  the way the players exploit the test is more than a little terrifying.

Think what it must be like to take an exam and try to guess how cognitively impaired you’re going to be in a few months.  Imagine deliberately answering questions wrong or misremembering words and knowing you’re modeling the person you’re going to become.

I wonder if the players who cheat try to set the baseline low, so they’re sure to pass or whether they set some secret failsafe.   Are some of them thinking, “It’s ok if I can only remember 12 words, but if I drop down to eight, I do want someone to step in and stop me.”  That’s a pretty sickening choice to make.

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