NFL Getting Serious On Concussions

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - December 02, 2009
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The pressure to play increases risks of head injuries. Here, Eli Manning takes a hit

Ah, Turkey Day, Thanksgiving. The annual celebration of overeating, bad football and the foundation of the greatest land-based Ponzi scheme in history.

No, I haven’t just fallen off the flatbed. I realize these types of holiday musings typically come prior to the event and not five to seven calendar days thereafter.

But what’s the choice? Is it better to banter about the yuletide season or the thrill of post-stuffing shopping sprees, which invariably turn into a battle of wills between the blue hairs and red beards, all in the effort to save half of the money wasted in gas and time in search of the perfect gift?

Perhaps we should discuss the lamest of all holiday traditions, the annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey. In case you’re counting, that’s one life saved and 250 million tasty turkeys slaughtered.

No, perhaps the best use of space is in discussion of the latest and most obvious decision made by the NFL in decades. After virtually ignoring the problem and hiding behind the pseudoscience of league-hired medical experts, Commissioner Roger Goodell is finally going to take a serious look at preventing concussions.

Welcome to the 1980s. The cumulative effects of concussions are the athletic version of global warming. Evidence abounds, but carefully placed skeptics remain on constant watch ready to debunk any critical research, as if there is some hidden agenda to dethrone America and the NFL by maintaining a healthy climate or a functioning brain.

For all the positive steps taken by the league to reduce injuries over the last few decades, concern over brain injuries has been conspicuously absent.

Part of the reason is the very real concern about fundamentally changing the nature of the game - a move that would greatly impact its popularity. Another factor is getting players to drop the macho bullcrap and admit the extent of their injuries to their coaches and team medical staff. Last week, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger resumed his normal duties during practice a week after suffering his fourth concussion in as many years.

Roethlisberger told the Associated Press that playing with pain is just part of the rough-and-tumble world that is the NFL.

“You guys don’t talk about the bruises we have all over our body,” said Big Ben. “If I showed you a bruise on my shoulder and a bruise on my shin, it wouldn’t get talked about as much.” This is near denial.

Researchers have found that repeated concussions can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, that was found in the brain of former NFL player Tom McHale. Dr. Ann C. McKee of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, who performed the biopsy on McHale’s brain following his death, reported finding similar damage to the brain of a 18-year-old who had received several concussions while playing high school football.

And it isn’t just football players who are taking a dangerous beating. The same type of damage has been found in the brain of boxers who have taken severe beatings to the head.

In a 2008 study, Dr. Maryse Lassonde, the neuropsychologist for the Montreal Canadiens, examined 19 university hockey and football players who suffered between one and five concussions, and found that each one had suffered minor impairment in thinking and motor skills when compared to similar athletes who suffered no severe head trauma.

If the players aren’t smart enough to force a change, then it is up to the league to protect its employees from their own recklessness.

For years, NASCAR drivers refused to wear the HANS (head and neck support) or Hutchens device, saying it would impair their vision by restricting their ability to move their neck. Even after the death of Dale Earnhardt, who may have been saved if he were wearing the equipment, drivers resisted. It took an overdue mandate from NASCAR to force drivers to take more responsibility for their own safety.

Last week, the NFL and the players union announced a plan that allows for independent neurologists to evaluate head injuries for each team. This was deemed necessary after the issue was repeatedly rebuffed by a league-appointed doctor whose only job seemed to be debunking private research connecting concussions to long-term medical problems.

Two days after the announcement, Drs. Ira Casson and David Viano, co-chairs of the committee on brain injury, resigned from their positions. Casson has been the league’s face of denial. Early last month, the NFLPA asked Goodell to remove Casson from his position, saying the players felt he is too biased in favor of the league to lead any research into long-term effects of concussions.

Goodell’s announced seven-step plan includes cause-and-effect research, education, rule changes, public-service announcements and reducing head injuries during practice. Whether they will do any good remains to be seen. The game will continue to be more dangerous than it has to be if players remain pig-headed and if the league continues to put profit over protection.


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