NFL HEAD INJURIES

August 12, 2010

Michael Wilbon, of the DC Post, has decided not to allow his 2-year-old son to play organized football when
he is older.

“While we’ve been obsessing over LeBron James’s decision and Brett Favre’s indecision, a real story – one
of staggering importance – has pretty much been ignored. It’s a story of the NFL finally facing the truth
about the frightening nature of head injuries, a story that could one faraway day lead football down the
same path as boxing, one that has already persuaded me to ban my son from ever playing organized football.
There’s been precious little angst or public discussion to this point even though America’s current
national pastime, professional football, is very quietly trying to figure out what to do about the biggest
crisis the sport has ever faced: head injuries. The NFL, less than two weeks ago, produced a poster warning
players of the dangers of concussions to the point of admitting that multiple head injuries can lead to
permanent brain damage.
The posters, headlined with the single word “CONCUSSION,” now hang in every locker room in the league and
appear to be the equivalent of the Surgeon General’s warning on every single cigarette package that smoking
can kill you.
This reflects a stunning reversal by the NFL on the severity of concussions and comes on the heels of
various academic studies that have produced conclusive findings, not to mention the revelation that the
late Chris Henry, a wide receiver who played only five NFL seasons and was never determined to have had a
concussion, suffered from a form of degenerative brain damage caused by multiple hits to the head.
One would think this would be enough to scare at least the families of every young football player in
America and start a national examination of just how big a health hazard football is. Yet, the stories have
been, so far anyway, a collective footnote.
What we’re in is a national denial. Nobody wants to hear that football is so dangerous that the NFL is now
asking players to not only report their own head injuries but to turn in teammates they suspect are
exhibiting symptoms of concussions. Nobody wants to hear that former NFL players suffer from Alzheimer’s
and other memory-related diseases, headaches and other neurological problems at a rate many times higher
than the national population. Football, perhaps more than anything else in the culture, is to be celebrated,
 not examined too closely, lest we freak out about what we find.
What players are finding this preseason is a new set of rules that have introduced caution, an about-face
policy that runs away from past practices and warns players in stark language about the kinds of
neurological problems that can result from concussions.
David Pollack, a three-time all-American and first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2005, now
hosts a radio sports-talk show in Atlanta and calls college football games for ESPN. Four years ago, at the
beginning of his second NFL season, Pollack suffered a broken sixth cervical vertebrae while making a tackle.
He wasn’t paralyzed, thankfully, but the injury ended his career.
“It’s a weird, weird topic,” Pollack said in a conversation about concussions last week. “It’s a gladiator
sport, and no matter the injury we want to be back in the game. … Intellectually, you know it’s scary.
Practically, I can say this: I bet you it doesn’t scare guys while they’re playing. When you barricade
yourself in that world you make your responsibility to your teammates your priority.
“I don’t remember a lot of things, dates, memories. I thank God I broke my neck and had to get out of
football when I did. I actually think that when I see the older players, some of the things they suffer
from and think, ‘Wow.’ ”
If you successfully introduce this subject to any gathering of football sycophants, one of them is certain
to suggest that these injuries are the result of the violent hits that can only be caused by players as big
and as fast as professionals, that none of this pertains to high school kids, which Pollack scoffs at,
going to back to his own hits in high school. The New York Times, which has reported extensively on this
topic, quoted current Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth as saying, “Ninety-nine percent of the
people who put on helmets don’t get the payback we do, but they’re taking the same risks.
[The warnings are] probably more valuable to them than it is to a lot of us.”
Given what we’ve learned recently, that the trauma and the long-term effects begin in high school, if not
earlier, I told Pollack that my son, Matthew, who is 2, simply won’t be allowed to play organized football.
The risk is too great, and to what end? When I asked Pollack, knowing what he knows and having experienced
such a serious injury, whether he’ll allow his son Nicholas, 2 years old, to play organized football, he
paused.
“I struggle to answer that,” he said. “My goal? For him to hold a golf club in his hand. I don’t know if I
can stop him, and I won’t push him to play football. Funny thing is, here I am doing college football games
for ESPN. I loved the camaraderie, the friendships. But I’d definitely be okay if he doesn’t play.”
So even though nobody believes for one second, today, that football in America could be in any kind of
jeopardy, we have to wonder what could happen in 10 years when parents have an additional decade of
research detailing the effects of cognitive issues confronting another generation of former football
players. If a sportswriter and former NFL player steer their sons clear of organized football, what might
that say long-range about the game’s viability? What happens in 20, 25 years when the research on brain
injuries at the youth football level piles so high parents simply can’t ignore it?
There is a sporting precedent. For the first 60 years of the 20th century, prize fighting trailed only
baseball in popularity in America. The heavyweight champion was often the most celebrated athlete in the
country.
Boxing, the original gladiator sport, has now all but disappeared and head injuries, some resulting in
deaths in the ring, played some part. Yes, there were plenty of social and cultural factors unique to the
fight game which led to the demise of boxing, but so did, among others, the 1982 death in the ring of Duk
Koo Kim, and Howard Cosell’s on-air soliloquy about how horrified he was over the sport’s brutality.
Just as pro football now has introduced new safeguards, boxing adopted its major reforms, including cutting
bouts from 15 rounds to 12 and allowing referees, not just ring physicians, to halt one-sided fights.
Football, college and pro, is so beloved it’s almost impossible to imagine the sport will be threatened in
the less than 30 years it took to essentially kill off prize fighting. The game holds such an exalted place
in today’s culture, and high schools across the country are stocked with enough young footballers that
replacing one fallen player after another is a given, as was the case with ancient gladiators.
But unless someone comes up with a miracle helmet to stop this damage, the NFL’s new warnings and the
gradual realization that very serious injury results from football’s inescapable collisions are the first
steps toward more bad news most of us would just rather ignore.”

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One Response to “NFL HEAD INJURIES”

  1. In addition to dementia, there is also a suspicious connection of head and neck trauma to Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. Parkinson’s due to boxing used to be called pugilistic Parkinson’s. Michael Fox first noticed tremors in his finger before he got PD. Prior to that he was knocked unconscious at least once if not twice after being checked hard and slammed into the side boards. I will be discussing trauma as it relates to neurodegenerative diseases in future posts on my website. I am currently covering the latest news regarding venous drainage issues in the brain causing MS. Drainage issues may also play a role in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well. Likewise trauma and degeneration of the upper cervical spine and base of the skull may be the cause of the drainage issues.

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