September 30, 2009
According to a piece published in today's New York Times, a study commissioned by the NFL found that former players are much more likely to suffer from dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or other memory-related impairments than the general population.
I don't necessarily find that to be a surprise. After all, helmet or no helmet, I never expected that repeated blows to the head by the fastest and strongest men on the planet would be a good thing. What I do find interesting, though, is how the NFL reacts to the findings of their own study.
The standard line from the league -- because this isn't the first time a study has found something like this -- is something like, "Oh, we don't trust that research, it's flawed, and we need to do our own research and gather our own information." They seem to have an interest in denying that playing pro football might somehow be linked to later-life noggin problems.
But this one is a study that the NFL commissioned themselves. So what say you now, NFL? From the Times:
An N.F.L. spokesman, Greg Aiello, said in an e-mail message that the study did not formally diagnose dementia, that it was subject to shortcomings of telephone surveys and that “there are thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems.”
Great, so the reaction is to just completely deny science in favor of, "Hey, I know a lot of people who don't have dementia." Then why even bother with a study? Greg Aiello happens to know of a lot of people who are just fine. That's good enough for everyone, right?
He sounds like an R.J. Reynolds executive the first time someone said, "You know, sucking burning tar into your lungs might not be the healthiest thing."
The doctors quoted in the article -- at least the ones who aren't affiliated with the NFL -- seem convinced that there is a link. The NFL people quoted are clinging to the "we need further information" bit.
The NFL seems to be on the defensive here. Why, I don't know. It's not like no one knows that football is a violent game that can have some unpleasant consequences. I think everyone knows and accepts that. It's not like a cigarette company, where they're accused of trying to trick the public. No one's accusing the NFL of whacking players in the head with ball-peen hammers as they sleep.
No one's accusing them of anything, really, other than being exactly what they are: proprietors of a sometimes-violent game. Instead of denying and refuting, I wish they'd get out ahead of the issue, believe the research that's in front of them, and put their energies towards finding ways to help make the effects less devestating.
Pretending that the sport isn't violent, and that it's a perfectly safe and wonderful activity for the human brain doesn't help anyone.
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