Is Big Football The Next Big Tobacco?

Below are many of the posts in which we have discussed the dangers of playing professional football. It comprises two major threads, “Is Big Football The Next Big Tobacco?” seen immediately below, and the later thread, “The Death Knell For Football?”, which can be skipped to here.


Wed Mar 28, 2012 – 12:47pm:

One begins to wonder. And when I say one, I mean a friend of mine who bent my ear on this somewhat taboo topic the other night. A story today details a mass-tort lawsuit involving 126 former NFL players because of the long-term impact of repeated concussions and head injuries.

The lawsuit alleges that the NFL was aware of the risks of repetitive traumatic brain injury but hid the information and misled players, resulting in permanent brain damage or neurological disorders. “It’s scary the extent to which these guys have been hurt,” said Gene Locks, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney. “When we played football, broken bones, busted noses, tears of tissue were kind of expected. Nobody said you’d get a head injury. These injuries are insidious, they are latent, degenerative, and it gets worse and worse as you get older in certain players.”

According to the lawsuit, [former Redskins QB, Mark] Rypien “suffers from various neurological conditions and symptoms related to the multiple head traumas.” The same language is used for each of the 125 other plaintiffs.

So a lucrative industry knowingly destroys the health of the people it makes money off – and keeps the evidence hidden from them. Sound familiar? But the above video suggests what might be the real crisis for football. If it can be demonstrated that playing high school and college football will cause serious and permanent brain damage, wouldn’t parents prefer their kids to be playing baseball or basketball?

At some point, I suspect, this will become a major scandal, as more brain-damaged adults emerge and more evidence comes out that the NFL may have long known about the health effects of their sport as it is currently played. I may be missing something, of course, given my total absence of any cultural capital on the subject of sports, so I’d be interested in readers’ thoughts about this. But I have a few questions in my head I can’t answer.

Is it conceivable that football may disappear in America if its impact on the brain is absorbed? Or have to be re-imagined? Is this worse now than it used to be – because the sheer size and weight of some players has increased vastly over previous generations? Do steroids play a part? And doesn’t knowing that you’re watching a bunch of guys turning their brains into swiss cheese take a little something out of the experience?


Fri Mar 30, 2012 – 10:15am:

A reader continues the thread:

The NFL has unquestionably gotten bigger and faster and therefore more violent. Partially due to performance enhancing drugs, but also partially due to vastly improved fitness regimens and nutrition research in the past 30 years (weightlifting wasn’t even really encouraged in the ’60s and early ’70s). But to suggest that the previous iterations of the game weren’t also dangerous is wrong. Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center in the ’70s, ended up severely brain damaged and died as a homeless man because of it. The NFL knew this.

There’s been a spate of suicides from retired and active NFL players in the past few years, many of them coming from depression and drug abuse but also tied to histories of brain damage. One suicide [see update below] from a few years ago, Chris Henry, was 26, but after autopsy was found to have the brain of a 60-something due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. There are probably more retired NFL players with pugilist’s dementia than retired pugilists with pugilist’s dementia. The NFL knows this.

There’s been a neuropathologist, Bennet Omalu, on the NFL’s heels for years about this, and the NFL has consistently denied him. Here are two articles from a few years ago, one from GQ and one from the Washington Post, about him and his research. And here is a video of Bernie Goldberg interviewing one of the NFL’s doctors about head trauma and the toadie, a Dr. Casson, denying any connections between football and the problem. The interview reminds me a lot of the “medical experts” in other corrupt industries. The NFL remembers this.

So yeah, the NFL may have some blood on their hands in a few grisly cases of some former players, but they have most assuredly known about the dangers of their sport for years, and only in the past year or two have they begun to panic and CYA and backtrack.

Another adds:

Until very recently, if memory serves, the NFL often attacked studies linking NFL concussions with later cognitive issues.  A quick search of the NY Times confirms my recollection. In fact, we see below that, as recently as 2007, you have a medical consultant for the Indianapolis Colts referring to such research as “virtually worthless”:

The N.F.L. has criticized previous papers published by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes – which identified similar links between on-field concussions and both later mild cognitive impairment and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease – and reasserted those concerns this week with regard to the paper on depression.

Several members of the league’s mild traumatic brain injury committee cited two main issues in telephone interviews this week: that the survey was returned by 69 percent of the retired players to whom it was mailed, and that those who did respond were relying solely on their memories of on-field concussions. One committee member, Dr. Henry Feuer of the Indiana University Medical Center and a medical consultant for the Indianapolis Colts, went so far as to call the center’s findings ”virtually worthless.”

So, yes, these lawsuit by former players will be very interesting.

Another:

I’ll be excited if the thread about brain injury in football takes off – it’s a topic near and dear to my heart. I am a professor specializing in the study of brain signals. I am currently involved in a project that attempts to create a model of chronic mild brain injury in rats with the goal of understanding how multiple “minor” brain injuries accumulate over time to produce the kind of trauma seen in veteran professional athletes. (I keep a blog and I’ve flagged some useful articles.)

Brain injury is an awful condition because it is very hard to diagnose. There are currently no clinical modalities that can image damaged brain tissue – even experimental research imaging modalities perform poorly in detecting brain damage. In fact, the best method for determining if there is chronic brain injury is to submit to a battery of neuropsychological tests which examine things like short- and long-term memory and so on. But even those aren’t perfect, and ultimately you need the opinion of a skilled psychologist to make a determination of brain injury. The best test unfortunately is to test for the presence of tau protein in the brain, or to slice the brain and look for evidence of neuronal injury, both of which can only be done posthumously.

As far as football is concerned, the real question at hand is whether players knew about these risks going in and decided to play anyways. Or alternately, whether the league knew about these issues and neglected to alert players to the risks. That’s a prickly legal battle that could easily not favor the players, regardless of how severe their injuries are.

Update from a reader:

I just want to make one minor correction.  Chris Henry was one of my favorite players on the Bengals and a reader e-mail referred to his death as a suicide.  While the situation surrounding his death was sad and his actions possibly a result of a damaged brain, he did not commit suicide.  He fell out of a pickup truck bed while the truck was being driven by his fiance during a domestic dispute. Almost as sad as a suicide and CTE was found in his brain at a later date.  While it is undetermined if the CTE led to his aggressive actions some doctors have acknowledged it is possible.

Another adds:

Your reader might be thinking of Andre Waters, who committed suicide a few years ago. He was in his 40s but was found to have severe brain damage consistent with how your reader described.

Update from the contested reader:

Just thought I’d explain why I said Chris Henry committed suicide. While it’s not certain that Chris Henry killed himself, witnesses at the scene of his death said that Henry said from the back of the truck he was in: “If you take off, I’m going to jump off the truck and kill myself.” The next thing people saw was him out of the bed of his truck unconscious. I know most the news stories said he fell, but this quote from a witness suggests something possibly more tragic.


Fri Mar 30, 2012 – 1:40pm:

A reader writes:

Your reader makes a good point about the fact that brain fractures and resulting death have decreased as helmet technology has progressed, but at the same time brain injuries in general have gone up.  This is because as they make the helmet “safer” for the people wearing it, they are also making it more dangerous for those it is being used against.  Helmets used to be made of leather, which is not exactly a lethal material, but today’s football helmets are like weapons.  Almost all head injuries in football, in fact, occur due to “helmet-to-helmet” contact.  In my opinion, it might not be a bad idea to get rid of helmets altogether, as that would probably discourage a defensive player from throwing his head full force into an offensive player’s left temple.

Another adds, “One of the things that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is going to have to address is that tacking without extending your arms will draw a 15 yard penalty.” Another reader:

I have also encountered speculation that helmet design is making things worse.

The guesstimating runs this way: as the helmets become ever more able to cushion physical shocks to the head it becomes ever more possible for the shocks to become stronger, and along with that the shocks not severe enough to cause a player to be knocked unconscious (stopping the game) but still severe enough to cause long-term degenerative damage become more frequent.

If this hypothesis turns out to be true, then it would have been better for football to have adopted rugby’s no-helmet uniform.  Rugby has lots of players with misshapen noses thanks to the battering those noses take on the field, but to the best of my extremely limited knowledge rugby doesn’t have a history of players with long-term brain injuries and progressive neurological degeneration caused by collisions on the field of play.

A reader with more experience agrees:

As an American who has played rugby for over ten years, let me offer an explanation of why football players suffer so many head injuries: it’s the helmets. Because American football players wear helmets (and pads), they are not taught to tackle correctly; they use their heads as battering rams, instead of protecting them as they should. American kids, especially in high school, are not taught proper tackling technique, but in a way that gives the “big hit” the fans love and the helmets fail to guard against. But ruggers are taught to wrap the man they are tackling, placing their head on the side away from the ground, and using the body of the man they are tackling to lessen their impact on the ground. They are taught to tackle with their heads.

While head injuries do occur in rugby, they are the result of failure to tackle correctly; head injuries in the NFL result from tackling just like they teach you to. In every season I’ve played and coached rugby in the US, I’ve had to spend time teaching guys who had played American football the basics of safe tackling. They simply didn’t know how. It was always a race to teach safe tackling before they injured themselves, or someone else, in practice. The best thing American football could do to deal with this issue is import rugby coaches to teach American football coaches the basics of safe tackling.


Mon Apr 2, 2012 – 1:38pm:

Several more readers sound off:

Football will not disappear because of the risk of brain injury.  Simply put: there’s too much money on the line for players and team owners to just hang it up because of concussions.  Instead the NFL has been addressing this through rule changes to avoid some of the riskier scenarios.  Kickoffs have been altered to limit the number of returns.  Rules have been implemented to penalize players for dishing out hard hits to player’s heads when they are exposed.  Players who receive concussions must be evaluated by third-party independent doctors to clear them to play again after receiving a concussion.  These rules make the sport safer if not completely safe.

As a fan of the sport, my feeling is that as long as the players are informed about the risks and the NFL does it’s best to mitigate those risks, then I don’t have any qualms watching it.  Brutality is a side effect of the sport, not the point of it.  It’s not like boxing, UFC, etc, where the point is to inflict injury and defeat an opponent by physical attrition (sports I do not watch). I’ve seen games filled with injuries and I’ve seen games where everybody was fine save a few bruises.

Another disagrees:

My cultural capital here: Chicago Bears season-ticket holder, and someone who writes about sports for various publications (and teaches sports lit). My prediction: football as we know it will be done within 15 years.

As evidence emerges, and it is constantly emerging, that CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) does not just occur at the game’s highest (and most brutal) levels, the NFL and NCAA, lawsuits will continue.  The science is there, and it will come out in court; not just whether the NFL or NCAA lied to their players or hid the risks, but the pure fact of the risks.

This will lead insurance companies to refuse to provide liability coverage for football leagues and players, since they know they will have to pay out too much.  And as soon as school districts are unable to get liability insurance, they will be forced to drop scholastic football, even if parents would allow their sons to continue to play.  Without the flow of grade school players to high schools to college, the NFL withers and dies.

I predict that it will be transformed into something like flag football, with an emphasis on the passing game, speed, and hands-skills.  But the day and age of gigantic defensive players obliterating receivers, quarterbacks and running backs is soon to be over.  And I’m OK with that.

Another is on the same page:

The way it will happen is by losing its feeder program. Football is big money and the NFL has deep pockets. The same with college to a lesser degree. The weak link is high school. There are already yearly budget battles in most school districts across the country. It isn’t a very big leap to see that a few lawsuits could start a cascade of high schools ceasing their football programs. They simply wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Another:

I have no idea if football is going away. But to anyone who says that football is too big to fail, I would point out that the most popular spectator sports in the early part of the 20th century were boxing and horse racing. I am sure that the idea that those sports would be seen as fourth-tier entertainment in 2012 would have seemed as crazy then as the idea of football going away does now. Things change.

Another:

The sport probably won’t literally disappear, but it could easily end up like boxing – once among the country’s favorite pastimes, now relegated to the fringes of polite society due almost entirely to the obvious toll that it takes on its participants.  Even sadder, absent an outright ban and assuming some level of continuing popularity, the only people who will play football will be the same people who continue to box (and, for what it’s worth, join the military): the poor and otherwise dispossessed who don’t perceive any other options and can’t afford to worry themselves about things like brain trauma.

Another notes:

This isn’t the first time football’s injury risk has risen to the level of national discussion.  Over 100 years ago President Roosevelt was faced with a movement to ban the game based on the rising number of injuries (and deaths!) at the high school and collegiate levels (pro football was only in its infancy at the time).  As this article points out, Roosevelt interceded and was able to convince the football powers that be to institute badly needed changes that saved the game.

Would Obama step in at this point?  Doubtful based on the political costs, as well as the other external pressures the NFL already faces to clean up the sport.  In fact, despite that fact that it’s coming too late, the current NFL Commissioner’s signature issue is safety in the game.  It’s one of the reasons he came down so hard on the Saints during the recent “Bountygate” scandal.

The NFL will clean up it’s image and improve the safety of the game.  This time around it won’t be a meeting with the President that does it, but the effect on the bottom line.


Tue Apr 3, 2012 – 9:42am:

More readers feed the popular thread:

Even the worst player on the worst team at the professional level is so far off the right side of the athletic bell curve that it’s as if he’s playing a different game entirely than the one played in high school or college. They’re freaks – and I use this word in the most positive way possible. This is more pronounced in the NFL, I think, than any of the other major American sports leagues.

Football players are simply universally strong and fast. I mean, look: the heaviest man in the NFL right now is probably Vince Wilfork, who is listed at 340 pounds. (This is a polite fiction; he’s probably closer to four bills.) Most people who weight that much are barely mobile, but here is Wilfork intercepting a pass against the Chargers last year.

This is a mountain of a man moving with lateral quickness, jumping to tip the pass, balancing himself in order to haul in said tip, and then running down the field at a speed you and I will never dream of reaching unless you have a track background I’m not aware of. He ran the 40-yard dash in about 5.21 seconds – that’s a almost 400 pounds of person moving at a little less than 16 miles per hour. And he’s considered somewhat slow.

You can’t just find a guy like that without a massive talent pipeline. Right now, you have thousands of high schools sending athletes to hundreds of colleges, all funneling their best athletes (after four years of pretty high-end training) to 32 football teams. If people start getting scared away, maybe the Vince Wilforks of the world will decide to take up basketball or baseball instead. The quality of play will decline – slowly at first, but eventually it’ll become noticeable. Maybe this will take 25 years to become an existential threat to the league, but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

Another writes:

This link is to a TERRIFIC Frontline episode on high school football, and it has a segment on brain injuries. The most frightening part is a team of doctors who set out to do a study of changes in cognitive functions of high school players in the hours and days after a concussive head injury. But there weren’t any significant episodes in their first couple days so they decided to put their time to use by doing some baseline studies of cognitive functions of the players before any injury.

One of the things they learned was that there was a measurable decline in cognitive function just from the ordinary helmet-to-helmet impacts on every play, even when there was no concussion suffered by the player. They tracked this group of players for several weeks of practice, and measured the decline in their brain function – thinks like short term memory, pattern recognition, etc.  The concluded that the cumulative effect of all these sub-concussive impacts of the brain on the inside of the skull lead to the same conditions as a concussion.

I’ve watched it a couple times now, and one decision I’ve come to is that my very athletically talented 10 year old will never play football.


Mon Apr 9, 2012 – 12:40pm:

by Chris Bodenner

A reader emphasizes a key distinction:

Leading with the helmet is a problem in football, but it is not the primary reason there has been a rise in a recognition of concussions and their long-term effects.  Helmet manufacturers claim – and they are correct – that helmets are not designed to prevent concussions.   Helmets are designed to prevent skull fractures, and the advances in their design and manufacture has pretty much done that.  Along with this added level of safety has come the increased use of the helmet as a “weapon” in tackling.  That has produced some instances of spinal injury from compression of the vertebrae in the neck of the player who lead with his helmet. Concussions are the result of a brain injury that happens from “inside-out” – they are caused by the brain impacting against the inside of the skull as the player’s head suddenly stops. No helmet technology will ever prevent that.

Another:

Your reader wrote, “In my opinion, it might not be a bad idea to get rid of helmets altogether, as that would probably discourage a defensive player from throwing his head full force into an offensive player’s left temple.” That argument usually comes up in discussion and is summarily dismissed when the number of concussions in rugby is shown – and it’s higher than in tackle football. See this article from TIME in 2010:

Back in January, in the course of reporting a TIME cover story on ways to make football safer, one idea I kept hearing, and that several readers subsequently championed, was to take a look at rugby. … Rugby, as it turns out, has plenty of problems with head injuries. According to one study, in South Africa about 14% of high school rugby players and 23% of professional and club players annually are diagnosed with concussions. Further, Michael Keating, the medical director for USA Rugby, says that a review of the scientific literature indicates that the number of incidences of concussions among rugby players and American-football players are similar. Some data suggest rugby incidence is 5% higher.

Another reader:

One other important factor I hadn’t seen mentioned in the football/head injuries discussion is the factor of the field. The vast majority of pro football fields are now turf. This enables the players to run much faster and plant their feet more confidently and cleanly, all of which results in greater speed, acceleration and impact. The landing is also that much harder.

Another:

There’s another factor here that is somewhat difficult to judge. For older players, especially before the introduction of free agency in the early ’90s, except for superstars, their salaries weren’t large enough to really provide compensation for the risks they were unknowingly taking. Players into the ’80s often had to work multiple jobs in the offseason to stay afloat. Today the minimum NFL salary is approximately $375k, and an average around $800k. There’s a feeling of unfairness, that today’s players benefit on the backs of older players who are suffering the effects today.

Another:

I grew up in the South, mostly Texas.  I played high school football.  My brother played high school football.  My father and uncle played and my grandfather played. My wife currently works in college football.  Both of my grandmothers were serious football fans who could discuss x’s and o’s with any coach as are most of my aunts. Two of my cousins have coached state championship teams in Texas.  To say the sport runs in my blood is to say it gets a little brisk in Montreal during January.

Despite all this, I refused my oldest son’s requests to play football until he was in junior high.  His first year of tackle football was this year and my wife and I made every game.  Last week, he informed me he wasn’t going to play next year.  I should have been crushed (and there is a part of me that wants to require him to play some sport).  But I was secretly thrilled.  He’s an exceptionally bright kid and as far as I can tell a brilliant musician (something I had to give up in junior high because of conflicts with sports).

The reader who submitted the above video notes:

Aikman has said he suffered as many as 10 concussions during his career. It’s pretty telling for one of the game’s biggest stars, and now it’s lead on-air game analyst, to say he may not let his own sons play the game based on what we are learning about brain injuries.


Tue Apr 24, 2012 – 9:31am:

A series of suicides by former NFL players, struggling with early concussion-related dementia, is a reminder that this issue will not go away.


Wed May 2, 2012:

Another day, another NFL suicide – again by a bullet shot to the chest, not the head. Why?

If Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, it is similar to the way former Chicago Bears great Dave Duerson ended his life. Duerson shot himself in the chest on February 17, 2011 — the method used so that his brain could be examined for symptoms of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a trauma-induced disease common to NFL players and others who have received repeated blows to the head.


Tue Sept 11, 2012 – 2:24:

Joseph Stromberg goes over a new CDC report detailing yet another danger of playing pro football:

Retired NFL players, they found, were three times more likely to die from diseases that damage brain cells, such as ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) and Alzheimer’s, than the general population. These diseases are closely related to [Chronic traumatic encephalopathy] and may in fact represent misdiagnosed cases of CTE because the symptoms of the various neurodegenerative diseases are so similar.

How a player’s position puts him at risk:

[T]he study also uncovered a telling trend that might indicate the increased mortality rates are not entirely random. The researchers divided all the players into two groups: those who play “speed” positions such as running back and wide receiver, and those who play “non-speed” positions such as offensive or defensive lineman. Speed-position players encounter much more violent collisions during the game, and speed players in the study were more than three times more likely to die from a neurodegenerative disease than the non-speed-position players.

The same day the report came out, the NFL made its largest donation ever, $30 million, toward health and medical research focused on “advancing science and medical understanding of brain injuries.” Update from an eagle-eyed reader:

One of the surprising things to me about that video is that it included plenty of hits that injured people. I’m an Eagles fan, so most of the hits I know are from Eagles games. I assume I’m missing several. Here’s my off the top of my head list of injuries in that video:

0:35 I think Massoquoi is concussed on this hit from James Harrison. I think this is from the week that had so many concussions the NFL changed the rules that week.

0:45 Dunta Robinson and DeSean Jackson stay on the ground for 5 minutes. DeSean is out for several weeks with a concussion. Also from the week that changed the rules.

2:38 Kevin Kolb is concussed. Somehow the medical staff doesn’t realize, and he plays the rest of the series before being pulled. Michael Vick comes in plays well and becomes the Eagles starter. This is after the rules change and heightened concern about concussions. An Eagles defensive starter is also concussed in that game and allowed to play for a while longer, because the medical staff didn’t see the hit.

3:32 Austin Collie – Concussion. This hit was penalized, though it should have been legal by the letter of the law, since Collie takes 2 steps before he’s hit. He might have been concussed in the hit at 3:35, since it’s been a problem in his career. He got another concussion this preseason.

A lot of the hits on the video are illegal now. Anything involving launching at a receiver, especially at the head, right after they’ve caught the ball. The video the NFL distributed about legal hits actually uses a Ray Lewis hit, where he hits the receiver in the midsection without launching. It looks like the hit at :20, though he leaves his feet in the hit at :20.


Thu Jun 7, 2012:

The Death Knell For Football?

Here’s the moment when Big Football looks like Big Tobacco. It’s 80 pending lawsuits brought together in one master complaint:

“The NFL, like the sport of boxing, was aware of the health risks associated with repetitive blows producing sub-concussive and concussive results and the fact that some members of the NFL player population were at significant risk of developing long-term brain damage and cognitive decline as a result,” the complaint charges.

“Despite its knowledge and controlling role in governing player conduct on and off the field, the NFL turned a blind eye to the risk and failed to warn and/or impose safety regulations governing this well-recognized health and safety problem.”

Once again, it’s not the problem as such that will kill football first; it’s the cover-up. If it can be proved that NFL officials knew of the dangers to players for years and did nothing to ameliorate or prevent it, indeed made more and more money off their bludgeoned human cattle, then all bets are off.


Fri Jun 8, 2012 – 3:20pm:

Dissent Of The Day

A reader writes:

The recent  posts a la “The Death Knell For Football” are really starting to get on my nerves. The point at which you started comparing football to Big Tobacco (which I think is an enormous stretch) finally pushed me to respond.

The risks of potential injury (and even injuries that could persist for years after a player had stopped playing the game) have been highly publicized for years. Even absent the concussion issue, players enter into the league knowing that is a brutal, dangerous, highly risky activity. Further, football players are individuals that have self selected for a dangerous profession — and have been offered significant monetary compensation to do so. How exactly are players victims? How are they any different from any other employee that has opted to work in a dangerous profession? It’s not like they were rounded up and forced to play football.

If your point is that the NFL knew about the longterm dangers of concussions, but did nothing to protect their players, I would argue that the league has for years maintained positions in favor of safety that players themselves have pushed back against.

For years, the league and its teams have made efforts to suggest the equipment and pads that players wear during games and practices, but players have pushed back because as an example, they prefer the helmet brand/style they wore in college or they don’t want to wear pads because they inhibit their movement/quickness. Even now, as the league moves to make the wearing of mouthpieces (something that is know to mitigate the risk and/or limit the severity of concussions), many players have stated that they are against this as it inhibits their ability to communicate on the field of play.  How is the safety of the players solely the league’s responsibility?

I guess though my biggest gripe with this series of posts is that it singles out American professional football, despite the fact that the rates of concussions in many other professional sports (e.g. hockey, soccer, rugby, lacrosse) are not that dissimilar from football. Seriously, Google “rates of concussions in sports”, and you’ll find numerous peer reviewed research on concussion rates in every major sport. Why then is professional football such an evil entity, making money “off their bludgeoned human cattle”, while other professional leagues get a free pass?


Mon July 16, 2012 – 5:11:

The Kevlar Defense

GT_CONCUSSION_120711

Rob Vito, the CEO of Unequal Technologies, believes the bullet-proof fabric could help reduce injury in football and hockey. Sean Conboy reports on the product:

As the NHL and NFL grapple with an epidemic of concussions, Kevlar-reinforced helmets are increasingly viewed as a magic bullet. The technology is proving particularly attractive to players who have sustained head trauma and desperately want to keep playing. And later this summer, Vito plans to take his product mainstream, unveiling a multi-million dollar advertising campaign aimed at the hundreds of thousands of youth league players around the U.S.

But in the rush to make their players unbreakable, pro teams aren’t asking many questions of Vito beyond how quickly he can do the job. Neurologists intimately familiar with sports-related concussions warn that there is no scientific evidence that Kevlar can reduce the risk of head trauma. Worse, they fear the pads could make the problem worse by masking symptoms.

(Photo: Starting Quarterback Trent Edwards #5 of the Buffalo Bills suffers a concussion after getting hit by Strong Safety Adrian Wilson #24 of the Arizona Cardinals during the first half of their NFL Game on October 5, 2008 at Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. By Donald Miralle/Getty Images)


Mon Dec 3, 2012 – 10.45am:

The Death Knell For Football? Ctd

Another story with disturbing implications for the NFL:

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker and former Long Island high-school star Jovan Belcher was allegedly battling football-related head injuries and booze, painkiller and domestic problems when he snapped and murdered his girlfriend before killing himself in front of two coaches Saturday.

TNC says what needs to be said. Money quote:

We don’t know what happened. We will never know what happened to Junior Seau. For me, that was the problem. The NFL has never been a reliable arbiter on player safety and brain injury. I don’t want to sit around with my beer and wings on Sunday and wonder whether my pastime contributed to the murder of a young mother and the orphaning of a little girl. I’m just not up for it.

When will that view become more widespread? And can the NFL adapt?


Mon Dec 3, 2012 – 2.15pm:

Tumblr_lv6ozmvRNh1qzcf71o1_500

Looking at another problem underlying Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide, Amanda Marcotte goes after media coverage:

I’m deeply upset about the way that Belcher’s suicide is being forefronted in the coverage over his resorting to murder when he couldn’t control his girlfriend. Like [Ta-Nehisis] Coates, I think it’s
just bad business to use terms like “tragedy” while avoiding terms like “murder” and “domestic violence”. I realize the hesitation is due in part to not knowing if Belcher was violent to Perkins prior to shooting her multiple times, but it’s still irresponsible.

She adds the context:

Death at the hands of a male partner is a leading form of murder for women. Belcher’s crime has to be understood in this context. Considering that this story is being widely reported in sports media, where domestic violence is rarely covered, it’s especially important to remind audiences that what Belcher did is sadly all too common.

Combing through the San Diego Union-Tribune’s database on arrests of NFL players, Justin Peters calculates that of the 1,700 active NFL players, around 2 percent have been charged with abuse or domestic violence charges. He reflects:

[I] think it’s stupid to say that football causes players to become abusive; after all, the vast majority of NFL players don’t take their work home with them. Last month, Craig Stevens of Northeastern University’s Sport in Society group reviewed much of the literature on the topic of male athletes and violence and concluded that there was no definitive proof that contact sports foster violent behavior.

But football can attract violent people, many of whom lack the skills to work through their anger. Many of the NFL players charged with domestic violence had traumatic-sounding childhoods.

Peters points to an important – and, so far, neglected – step the NFL might take:

After the Jovan Belcher murder/suicide, there’s been a lot of talk about making more and better counseling services available to NFL players. And certainly, Commissioner Roger Goodell has made clear his goal of reducing domestic violence in the league. … But what Goodell has done to address this pattern as of now is unclear … Hopefully [Saints defensive end and alleged batterer] Will Smith got the help he needs. And perhaps the case of Belcher and Kasandra Perkins will lead other NFL players to seek counseling—and for the NFL to take action to make sure they do.

Meanwhile a new study of men who died with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has some sobering findings as well as some caveats:

Those categorized as having Stage 1 of the disease had headaches and loss of attention and concentration, while those with Stage 2 also had depression, explosive behavior and short-term memory loss. Those with Stage 3 of C.T.E., including Duerson, a former All-Pro defensive back for the Chicago Bears who killed himself last year, had cognitive impairment and trouble with executive functions like planning and organizing. Those with Stage 4 had dementia, difficulty finding words and aggression.

Despite the breadth of the findings, the study, like others before it, did not prove definitively that head injuries sustained on the field caused C.T.E. To do that, doctors would need to identify the disease in living patients by using imaging equipment, blood tests or other techniques. Researchers have not been able to determine why some athletes who performed in the same conditions did not develop C.T.E.

The study also did not demonstrate what percentage of professional football players were likely to develop C.T.E. To do that, investigators would need to study the brains of players who do not develop C.T.E., and those are difficult to acquire because families of former players who do not exhibit symptoms are less likely to donate their brains to science.

It’s becoming an inescapable conclusion that football is spreading a horrible brain disease – and that those who run the sport and watch the sport know it. It either has to change or keep generating headlines like those around Jovan Belcher. The NFL has to decide whether it is in the business of sport or turning men into depressive, explosive and ultimately incapacitated human beings, for whom suicide is sometimes a mercy. More fascinating detail on the disease here. Photo from this Tumblr well worth perusing.

We think our civilization is superior to previous ones who sent gladiators into arenas to die. We’re finding out it may be a difference in degree rather than kind.


Thu Dec 6, 2012 – 12.45pm:

Travis Waldron shifts the narrative on the coverage of NFL linebacker Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide:

[W]hile it’s important to continue exploring the link between football and brain injuries and the societal effects those brain injuries can have, using concussions as a catch-all explainer of Belcher and Perkins’ death strikes me as a convenient way to gloss over the tougher-to-handle fact that this may have simply been a case of domestic violence. By using concussions or CTE as such a catch-all, we miss the chance to explore the prevalence of domestic violence in our society and the mores, norms, and gender roles that make that violence so prevalent. We miss the opportunity to examine policies we could enact (like the Violence Against Women Act, which will come in front of Congress again this month) and societal changes we need to make to ensure that domestic violence — and murder-suicide — is less likely to occur in the future.

I agree. But the two things are not mutually exclusive. Previous coverage here and here.


Fri Dec 7, 2012 – 6.32pm:

A new study (pdf) of the donated brains of 85 football and hockey players and soldiers “clearly shows … there may be severe and devastating long-term consequences of repetitive brain trauma that has traditionally been considered only mild.” The number of concussions suffered by football players and position played did not correlate with the severity of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Jonathan Mahler concludes::

[F]ootball doesn’t have a concussion problem. It has an existential one. … By framing football’s head-injury crisis as a concussion crisis, we have understated its severity. Our scope of concern should go beyond observable phenomena.

He addresses the Belcher murder-suicide:

I couldn’t help but notice … one of the first questions asked in the aftermath of the incident: Did he have a history of concussions? The answer, apparently, is no. The question itself is as good as meaningless.

Meanwhile, Lindsay Abrams calls attention to the research of Dr. Paul Echlin, who found similar trends in the neurological impact of mild head trauma:

The team also found that once players sustain a concussion, they’re more susceptible to future incidents. Even if they seem like they’re able to “shake off” one minor head injury, it’s a quick progression to the compounding problem identified by the researchers [in the aforementioned study]. After every concussion, said Echlin, players need time and space to recover — and this includes time off from school for cognitive recovery.

Abrams highlights why, despite state laws requiring coaches to sideline young athletes suspected of being concussed, public awareness of the low threshold for brain damage risk is still critical:

Echlin argues that no real changes are going to be seen until we change the underlying culture of contact sports. It’s certainly not going to come from people entrenched in the culture, he added, like Peyton Manning, who provides simple instructions for how to cheat the concussion test in order to stay in the game. “I don’t think anybody really knows the risks at this time. We’re just trying to find it out medically. And we know that there’s been so much cover-up,” said Echlin.