This weekend, over nachos and beer, millions of viewers will watch as the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks clash in the Super Bowl. And though we probably won't discuss it, this much is true: During bone-crunching blocks and tackles, some of these players may sustain concussions.
Others will take hits that cause brain injuries that are too subtle to be noticed but, over time, can be quite dangerous.
Most of these guys will rest during the off-season and be healthy again when preseason training begins. But some may take a step toward conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which brings an unpredictable, life-wrecking mix of memory loss, depression, and rage that has claimed the lives of beloved players.
Difficult questions remain: Are we doing enough to protect players from head injuries? Can we make enough progress toward better diagnosis and treatment, so that the pros and kids playing football today don't have to risk their futures?
Amid talk of hi-tech brain scans and complex neurological trauma, super-agent Leigh Steinberg—the inspiration for the title character in Jerry Maguire—spoke in language that didn't require a medical degree to be understood.
Football head injuries are "an undiagnosed health epidemic," Steinberg said. They're "a ticking time bomb," because the damage may not surface until years later, when it ruins former players' lives.
In his experience representing an array of the NFL's best players, he said that the thousands of "sub-concussive hits" that players shake off and play through during their careers can be "much more impactful on the human brain than getting knocked out three times."
The effects of those hits, bludgeoning the brain over time, have added up to tragic endings. Former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson ended his life by shooting himself in the chest, leaving a message for his family that said he did it so his brain could be studied for CTE. In a more widely reported case, former NFL linebacker Junior Seau appears to have killed himself by the same method for the same reason. His autopsy, just like Duerson's, showed evidence of CTE.
Players suffering from early onset dementia and other neurological problems are increasingly speaking out, leaving the NFL little choice but to address the problem. Earlier this month, a judge rejected the NFL's proposed settlement to a $765 million concussion lawsuit brought with players. Negotiations over that settlement are ongoing.
Though NFL players are bigger, stronger, and faster, their experience is also a warning to thousands of American kids who sustain repeated concussions playing middle school and high school football.
Steinberg was blunt: "If half the mothers in the country knew what we're talking about," he said, they'd tell their kids they can play any sport but football.
One of the panelists at the summit was Brooke de Lench, founder of the parenting site MomsTeam.com. Last year, de Lench produced a documentary called The Smartest Team, currently airing on PBS, that explores the subject of high school football concussions and chronicles the experiences of student players in Oklahoma.
She'll track the high school football players for each of the next five years, and PBS will air an updated version of her documentary each year. Her goal is to show people how two things change—the health of her film's student subjects and the evolution of the technology available to protect them.
"Kids will get concussions," de Lench says. "They may have one, two, three, in their lifetime. It really isn't so much the fact that they have a concussion. It's really how soon that concussion will be identified and exactly what the treatment will be."
Hopefully, progress toward better treatment took a leap forward last week. The NFL and General Electric announced the first winners of their Head Health Challenge grants: 16 organizations that will be given money toward targeted research into the diagnosis and treatment of brain injury. Once that technology is better developed, the hope is that teams and parents can get a stronger sense of just how frequently concussions are happening and what they're doing to players' health.
Some of the proposals chosen for this first round of grant making seek to design portable equipment to be used on the field by a coach or trainer to determine what kind of injury has occurred, if any. Others aim to develop blood tests, de Lench says, "that will be able to detect some of the protein in the blood that would tell someone that, yes, there's been a concussion."
It's easy to watch these deaths and wonder: Should people, especially children, be playing sports that expose them to the same injuries that wreck the lives of soldiers? Some school districts, de Lench says, are considering scrapping their middle school and high school football programs because of concussion fears, which she thinks is an overreaction.
Instead, she says, communities need to educate coaches, parents, and kids about detecting an injury accurately, treating it fully, and protecting kids from returning to play too soon.
There is no doubt that NFL teams will continue playing the hard-hitting brand of football that draws fans and earns billions of dollars each year. We'll see it on display Sunday. The question is how this season's tackles will affect players' lives a decade from now.
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