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Concussions and football: What does the future hold?

October 27, 2013
By SHAUNNA DUNDER HERSHBERGER - Lifestyles Editor (sdunder@timesleaderonline.com) , Times Leader

PBS's Frontline recently aired a two-part series called "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis." If you have not seen this documentary, and you're a football fan, I highly recommend you visit www.pbs.org and watch the special online.

Without going into gory detail about the special, the basic premise is this: when doctors did autopsies of the brains of former NFL players, areas of damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) were found. This is a disease seen in individuals with a history of multiple concussions and other head injuries. According to Wikipedia, individuals with CTE may show symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression, which generally appear years or many decades after the trauma.

Over and over, doctors made the discovery of CTE in the brains of football players - one of whom was an 18-year-old high school football player. Many of the players exhibiting the disease (which can only be diagnosed postmortem) were linemen - those players who are in the trenches play after play. Much of the time, when we think of concussions in the NFL, we think of the huge hits that the NFL often likes to glamorize. You don't really think of linemen taking big hits. However, the force of each lineman - all large men trying to get a push in favor of his team - hitting each other was compared to a car crashing into a wall at 35 mph over and over and over. You could see how, over time, that sort of thing qualifies as "repetitive trauma."

The focus of the special, however, was the NFL's response to the research, which is best described as denial. Even though the league assembled committees to address player safety, the NFL's doctors vehemently denied any connection with playing football and CTE. As the research grew, however, the NFL seemed to participate a bit more willingly, although Commissioner Roger Goodell stopped short of admitting to a connection.

Over the summer, the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 retired players who have accused the league of hiding the link between football and CTE. That amount of money is merely a drop in the bucket for a billion-dollar entity like the NFL.

As a football fan, I feel disappointed with the NFL's reaction. Why would the league not want to protect the people who are making them its billion dollars? Sure, there's been a huge surge in player safety issues recently, but how much of that is because of the revelation of the CTE research?

On the other hand, as incriminating as the research is, considering the vast number of people who play the sport, from Pop Warner all the way to the NFL, the research crew at Boston University, with whom the NFL is collaborating to continue concussion research, has only examined a microscopic amount of brains - only 49 cases have ever been studied and published in medical literature. The brain tissue of deceased former NFL players have tested positive for CTE in 18 of 19 cases.

CTE research is in its infancy, so for the NFL to jump on board and say immediately, "Yes, there is a connection," seems really unlikely. Thinking of it from a business perspective, it makes sense for the NFL to wait for more evidence.

I have to wonder, though, if the damage has been done? Among the video clips played by Frontline were highlights from Pop Warner football leagues where little kids were charging at other kids as hard as they could. As much as I love football, I certainly don't think it's appropriate for 8- and 9-year-old kids to hit each other that hard - especially when you consider the disparity in the sizes of kids that age. Some kids are much larger than others, and the smaller kids are more likely to get hurt.

If I had a child old enough to play football, I can't say for sure whether or not I'd let him play. Before the concussion drama flared up, I probably wouldn't have hesitated to let my kid play. Football is a contact sport, and parents - and kids - know and understand the risks up front. However, the hitting starts way too early. Flag football for kids is fine, but hitting should not start until junior high school or eighth grade. The basic concept of having your child play a team sport is to learn how to work with others, follow instructions, encourage your peers and develop social skills, not to see how strong he is and how hard he can hit another child.

Scaring away moms and dads, who will in turn hold their kids out of playing football, is not a good situation for the NFL. While it seems plausible to wait for more evidence, you also have to wonder how much of the NFL's reaction was due to selfishness? Of course they don't want to lose or scare away their future stars, so denying any link of getting CTE from playing makes sense.

The book "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth" by authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru expands on the issue presented in the Frontline special. It will be interesting to follow the research and observe how the NFL reacts and responds to new findings. There is much more research to be done, and this issue is far from over for the NFL.

 
 

 

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