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Concussion in the NFL

With the NFL season beginning on September 4th, the concussion debate has raised its ugly head once again. 

According to @NFLConcussions, 36 players have been diagnosed with or been reported to have had concussions in the preseason. Even before the real games begin, we are reminded of how brutal and hard-hitting American football is.

The issue of concussion in the NFL has been a huge talking point for many years. There has been some controversy in the past regarding the long-term effects repeated concussions can have on a player. You can tell straight away that these players, running into one another as hard and as fast as they can, are not retiring healthy. Concussion and other play-related head trauma has been proposed as the cause of player suicides.

I created a radio documentary on concussion in the NFL and rugby earlier this year. Researching it was both frightening and interesting. I complied a list of NFL players that were diagnosed with CTE (more on that later) after their deaths. Their ages ranged from early 20s to early 80s. About half of them committed suicide.

One story that stuck with me was that of Mike Webster. Nicknamed ‘Iron Mike’, he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs during his sixteen year career. He is regarded as one of the best centres ever. However, Mike’s post-football life was not easy. He suffered from amnesia, depression and acute muscle pain – classic symptoms of concussion. Mike died in 2002 aged 50.

His brain was examined and the coroner, Dr Bennet Omalu, noted that Mike suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disorder usually found in boxers. Mike Webster was the first NFL player diagnosed with CTE. His story is included in PBS’s Frontline documentary, League of Denial: The NFL Concussion Crisis.

This case was not an isolated incident. It was followed by Andre ‘Dirty’ Waters and Terry Long, former NFL players that both showed signs of CTE post-mortem.  The difference was that Waters and Long took their own lives.

Okay, now for the science bit…CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes and others with a history of repeated brain trauma, including concussions. The trauma triggers degeneration of brain tissue, including the build-up of tau protein.

The symptoms of CTE are much more severe than concussion and it can lead to full blown dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease later in life. In rare cases, it can also cause Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Interesting fact: it’s now thought that former Yankee Lou Gehrig died as a result of CTE – not the disorder named after him.

Christopher Nowinski, a former WWE wrestler and Harvard football defensive lineman, has been an advocate of concussion education in the US for years. Needless to say, he’s been a bit of a thorn in the side of the NFL. He suffered 6 concussions in his 11 years in sports but  it took him years to realise the damage they had done to his health. He had to retire from WWE as a result of post-concussion symptoms.

In October 2006, Nowinski published Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis, which details his career-ending injury and discusses the dangers of concussions in football and other contact sports. The book served as the basis of the documentary, Head Games, which was first released in 2012 and updated in 2014.

In 2007, Chris Nowinski and Dr Robert Cantu founded Sports Legacy Institute to advance the study, treatment and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes and other at-risk groups.

18 months ago, The New York Times published images of brain injuries in athletes. The damage is quite disturbing.

Last year, a group of over 4,500 former NFL players sued the league for concussion damage and they were given a settlement of $760 million. Many players believe that this is too small considering the NFL generates $10 billion annually.

In July, Judge Anita Brody of Philadelphia granted preliminary approval to the NFL league’s $765 million settlement offer to the players. Over 4,500 players are included in this but about 20,000 could be eligible for a settlement. Steve Almasy and Kevin Conlon of CNN wrote that, “the settlement will provide eligible retired player with baseline neurological exams and include monetary awards for diagnoses of ALS, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and early and moderate dementia.”

According to John Clayton on ESPN, the players should receive their individual settlement within the next 6 months to 1 year.

Changes need to be made to ensure the safety of the players and the NFL are taking steps to make the game safer. Player welfare needs to be made the Number 1 priority.

For more information on concussion and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), go to the Sports Legacy Institute or the Boston University CTE Center websites.

Eilís Brennan, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.