Friday, September 21, 2012
NFL brain injuries nearing crisis level - SFGate
FILE -- This is a Dec. 21, 2008, file photo showing grass and dirt flying as Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, left, is hit by Tennessee Titans' Cortland Finnegan (31) as Ward scores a touchdown on a 21-yard reception in the third quarter of an NFL football game in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Russell, File) Photo: John Russell, AP / SF
The National Football League is facing a crisis that could forever change, if not end, the sport.
This might sound fantastical. After all, there is no sport and no spectacle bigger than the NFL.
The league takes in more than $9 billion in revenue each year.
NBC's "Sunday Night Football" was the No. 1 show on television last season.
The Super Bowl was the most watched show in the history of this country.
The second most watched show? That would be last year's Super Bowl.
Given the hype that surrounds the league, it speaks volumes that the start of the 2012 season was marked not with fireworks or military planes screeching across the sky but a somber, one-page press release.
The notice was from the office of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and it announced that the NFL would donate $30 million to the National Institute of Health to study the effects of traumatic brain injuries.
The very same day, in news that didn't make an NFL press release,
the journal Neurology released an exhaustive study showing that former NFL players are three to four times more likely to suffer brain diseases than the rest of the population.
It's not surprising that the NFL wants to focus on how it is helping the study of brain injury instead of
being a remorseless profit machine that causes brain injuries.
The biggest story of the off-season wasn't the NFL draft or the possible destination of free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning.
It was the suicide of future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau in May.
Seau shot himself in the chest, the same very rare manner of suicide undertaken last year by former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson.
Duerson said he was choosing this method so his brain could be studied to see if it was head injuries that made him so unbearably despondent.
(Studies after his death did reveal that Duerson suffered from CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a post-concussive syndrome.)
The league is being sued by 2,000 former players, including Hall of Famers Bruce Smith and Art Monk, who contend that the league doctors and officials knew the risks of traumatic brain injury and did nothing.
This lawsuit leads back to Seau, because one thing we know for sure is that not once in his 20-year career was Seau ever diagnosed with a concussion on an injury report. This is either a miracle on par with turning water into wine, or doctors just didn't report concussions when they occurred.
Seau's friend and teammate in San Diego, Gary Plummer, said, "Junior played for 20 seasons. That's five concussions a game, easily. How many in his career then? That's over 1,500 concussions."
Plummer is not talking about concussions like the kind of "lights-out hit" that the sports highlight shows giddily replay on a loop with a graphic describing how a player was "jacked up."
He is talking about the daily wear-and-tear of playing in the NFL, about the contact you see on every play.
These are called sub-concussive hits, and when experienced in constant repetition, they have been conclusively linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
(Mr. Turley provides a graphic description of the daily wear-and -tear of playing football for those of us who missed out on the fun of this sport. Boxing was my full contact sport and the seeing of spots and regular headaches occur in boxing, as well. But football sounds even rougher because so many hits come out of left field, out of your field of vision not allowing you to brace for the hit. In boxing it is the punch the guy doesn't see that knocks him out.)
Kyle Turley, a former Pro Bowl offensive lineman, described the process of receiving sub-concussive hits on the field of play: "You start on your own 5-yard line and drive all the way down the field - 15, 18 plays in a row sometimes.
Every play: collision, collision, collision.
By the time you get to the other end of the field, you're seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions - boom, boom, boom - lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter."
The implications of CTE coming from normal, regular contact on the field of play are huge, from the leagues populated by 7- and 8-year-olds to the pros.
It tells us that despite all we read about rule changes, high-tech helmets and educating players about health and safety, you can make the game safer, but only so much.
Tackle football is like a cigarette:
You can have one with a bigger filter or less tar.
It can even be an all-natural American Spirit brand, but no matter how much we lie to ourselves, the stubborn truth is that there is no such thing as a safe cigarette, just as there is no such thing as a safe football game.
In the past year, 1 million fewer children signed up for youth tackle football in the United States.
There will always be people willing to play in the National Football League.
If fans start to see an ordinary tackle football game as a breeding ground for brain diseases, - like Alzheimer's, ALS and dementia, - the public could turn away in enough numbers that being a fan will carry a stigma.
All of a sudden, loving "the greatest show on turf" would be akin to being seen as being a Sunday sadist.
Dave Zirin writes about the intersection of sports and politics. He is the author of the forthcoming "Game Over: How Politics Have Turned the Sports World Upside Down" (The New Press).
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/NFL-brain-injuries-nearing-crisis-level-3884267.php#ixzz27AdZr9qe
NFL brain injuries nearing crisis level - SFGate