October 28, 2009
When I did a long piece on concussion management and helmet technology for the Scout.com series of NFL magazines in 2007, I discovered a few things. I discovered that according to one independent study, approximately 150 concussions per year were reported by NFL teams from 1996 to 2001. I also discovered that those in the know believe that the number of reports is dwarfed by the number of actual concussions. "We want to make sure all NFL players, coaches and staff members are fully informed and take advantage of the most up-to-date information and resources as we continue to study the long-term impact of concussions," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a press release announcing the league's new concussion policy in 2007. "Because of the unique and complex nature of the brain, our goal is to continue to have concussions managed conservatively by outstanding medical personnel in a way that clearly emphasizes player safety over competitive concerns."
I discovered some of the horror stories lived by the men whose brains and lives were destroyed by the violent nature of the game: How Steelers great Mike Webster died of a heart attack at age 50 in September, 2002 after drifting through a hell on earth for years after his football career ended, losing battles to concussion symptoms as well as drug abuse, homelessness, debt and physical pain so severe he had to use a taser gun to force himself into unconsciousness. I discovered the story of former Eagles safety Andre Waters, who committed suicide in November of 2006. After his death, forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh told the New York Times that Waters' brain tissue resembled that of an 85-year-old man, and that he would have been fully incapacitated within ten years. I retold the story of ESPN analyst Merrill Hoge, who struggled for years with memory loss after his own Steelers career was over, and I discovered that Ron Jaworski, Hoge's partner in playbook analysis, claims that he himself suffered over 20 concussions in his career. Jaworski walked away luckier than most.
Given the extensive research I did for this and other articles, I found the NFL's recent claim that there is no link between concussions and Alzheimers' Disease and other memory disorders to be especially egregious. In my mind, the NFL is trying to do with head injuries what Major League Baseball did with performance-enhancing drugs for so long -- turn a blind eye to the real truth, and pay lip service to the surface facts. While the league and the Player's Union now vow to do better, ignoring overwhelming physical evidence is not a step in the right direction. The conflict of interest issues inherent in the NFL's own reported study -- which the league says will be the "definitive word" on the subject if it's ever actually published -- are obvious.
Nobody is in the dark about the most important fact: Football is a physical, violent game, and the men who play it will be affected to varying degrees by their involvement in it. It is the responsibility of those who watch over the pro game to do their best for the players at all times. Wasting years -- and potentially more lives -- by denying the obvious and burying the unpleasant truth in semantics and supposed studies helps no one.
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