Dale Earnhardt Jr To Pledge His Brain To Concussion Research
EARNHARDT JR. PLEDGES TO DONATE BRAIN TO SCIENCE
By Zack Albert | NASCAR.com | April 01, 2016 at 01.30 PM
With a simple, conversational tweet this week, Dale Earnhardt Jr. let his 1.39 million followers -- and many others through the message's social spread -- know that he would donate his brain for scientific research upon his passing.
Earnhardt Jr. didn't expect the informal mention over social media during Easter weekend to become national news, part of a growing focus on professional sports and brain injuries. But Friday at Martinsville Speedway, he shed light on how and why his pledge merits such personal importance.
"I was a donor already for many years, as my driver's license would attest. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do for me," Earnhardt said from the .526-mile track, site of the sixth race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. "Anything that I can do to help others, but hopefully the science has advanced far beyond where it is today and they don't need it.
"It was something that I didn't have to ask myself whether I wanted to do it or not. Going through that process in 2012 I learned so much and have so much respect for the work that those doctors are doing and really were inspired by some of the athletes that have pledged their brains before me."
That process was Earnhardt's own brush with brain trauma four years ago, when two concussions within a six-week span sidelined him for two races. That inspiration came from seeing other professional athletes -- former professional soccer player Brandi Chastain and former members of the NFL's Oakland Raiders among them -- make similar pledges in recent weeks.
But the 41-year-old driver did more than simply verbalize his commitment, also taking steps to contact the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the Boston University center for CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) research, leading partners in the study of brain injuries among athletes.
"There will be a card in your pocket that you carry like your driver's license," Earnhardt said of his donor identification. "Your family can refuse. Nothing is binding so it's really just a promise in a way. You share that information with your family so they are aware and when this comes up if you happen to pass untimely or what have you if this comes up someone will contact them."
Concussions in motorsports became a more vibrant talking point after Team Penske's Will Power missed the IndyCar season opener three weeks ago, diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms on race-day morning. But further tests showed no evidence of a concussion and that Power suffered from dizziness, nausea and headaches related to an inner-ear infection.
Penske officials said that Power would have been too ill to drive in either case, but the timing of the diagnosis and protocols drew a sharp response from Brad Keselowski, a Penske driver on the NASCAR side of the operation. Asked if better at-track testing was needed, Earnhardt welcomed the discussion but voiced his approval of NASCAR's concussion-related procedures, which include the ImPACT Test and other examinations to determine neurocognitive baselines.
"I see the argument in reverse. Most concussions are self-diagnosed and as a driver I think the real purpose of the conversation should be to help drivers, football players, whoever it is to understand that it's OK to self-diagnosis and go get help. I feel very good about the protocols that are in place. …
"Concussions are like snowflakes. There are no two concussions that are the same. Each one deals with certain parts of the body and to be able to use that impact test helps you understand how to treat that particular concussion. I think the protocols and the advances that we have made in trying to protect ourselves are great things. I'm excited about what NASCAR has done. They have really taken this head on. They are talking to the right people. They are talking and involving themselves with the right folks to get the best information to be able to protect the drivers the best way they can. … It will just get better the same way everything else in the sport progresses."
Earnhardt said he hoped to visit the organization and its brain bank in Boston when the series makes one of its next stops at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, taking the opportunity to learn more about the process and the partnership's research. He also said he hopes that should he be blessed with a long life, medical advancements over the coming decades will make his commitment to the institution unnecessary.
Friday, Earnhardt's words spoke to the underlying heft behind his off-the-cuff tweet, one that's prompted influential conversations that reach beyond his personal decision.
"I just was in the moment of conversation and that is sometimes the comfort that you find yourself in on Twitter sometimes and I didn't expect it to turn into the story it did," Earnhardt said, "but by all means if it raises more awareness and inspires people to donate their brains and pledge their brains. They don't need just athletes. They need everybody.
"I'm going to give up all the organs that are worth anything when it's over with. They can have it all."