I hate to rain (or sleet) on anyone’s Super Bowl parade this weekend, but if you’re going to be watching the big game on Sunday, you should first read Ben McGrath’s Jan. 21 New Yorker article on football’s concussion crisis.
As the article suggests, “people at home on their sofas, happily consuming Budweiser and buffalo wings” need to realize the very real health consequences of all that head-butting they’re watching (and relishing) on their TV screens. For many of the men hitting (literally) the field at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday (20 percent by one quoted source’s estimate) will be playing with incipient dementia (or mild cognitive impairment), a brain condition that causes mild memory problems, but which is also believed to be a risk factor for other neurological problems, including depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
And some of those men, experts say, will go on to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a devastating dementia-like brain disorder that’s been linked to sports-related concussions. CTE is being diagnosed at an alarming pace in a number of former football players and other athletes, including those who played the sports only in high school and/or college.
As McGrath points out, CTE does not just result from major, news-making collisions on game days (about 10 pro football players, on average, are concussed each weekend during the fall football season), but also from the steady accumulation of less noticeable subconcussions during practices.
No wonder, then, that retired NFL players are, as McGrath reports, five to 19 times more likely that the rest of us to be diagnosed with a dementia-related brain condition.
Cracking down on rule-breakers
NFL officials say they’re trying to change the culture of football, and this fall they began to be stricter about enforcing the game’s existing tackling rules, levying heavy fines on players, like Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison, who flagrantly ignore them. They seemed particularly eager to act after October’s so-called Black and Blue Sunday, which racked up an above-average number of serious concussions.
But will those efforts be enough to stem the run of injuries — and to keep football from eventually becoming as marginalized in American culture as boxing?
The anecdotal momentum suggests no, says McGrath:
Two weeks after Black and Blue Sunday, on October 28th, an honor student in Spring Hill, Kansas, returned to the sidelines after making an interception at his high school’s homecoming game and told his coach that his head was hurting. Soon afterward, he fell to the ground, suffered a subdural hematoma, and died. The next week, Jim McMahon, the ex-quarterback, confessed at a twenty-fifth reunion of the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears that his memory is “pretty much gone,” and that he often walks into a room without knowing why. …
A few days later, a Cleveland Browns linebacker collapsed at his locker-room stall, after practice, in the presence of reporters, and was taken to the hospital. Shortly after that, two high-school players died on the same day — one on the field, in Massachusetts, of a heart stoppage, and the other, in North Carolina, by suicide, five weeks after suffering a season-ending concussion. The same week, two Division I college players announced their retirement, out of concerns relating to concussions, and team doctors at the University of Utah “medically disqualified” a sophomore from continuing his career.
Liabilities may become too great
Footfall’s fate may be ultimately decided by lawyers and insurance companies, for, as McGrath notes, “with new medical evidence may come new legal risk and liability, and recalibrated insurance premiums, for schools as well as for individuals.”
“Football may go the way of gymnastics, where these private entities will come forward and have teams,” author (“Out of Their League”) and former (1960s) St. Louis Cardinals linebacker David Meggyesy told McGrath. Meggyesy envisions, McGrath added, “a scenario in which the social pecking order at American high schools is not driven by quarterbacks and their doting cheerleaders.”
And without a large pipeline of players coming up through high school, who will be taking the field on future Super Bowl Sundays?
You can read McGrath’s New Yorker piece in full here.
Footnote: In a related story, a study published late last week in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that retired NFL players use opioid painkillers (drugs like morphine, Vicodin, codeine and oxycodone) at four times the rate of the general population. The researchers attributed the increased use by the players to their on-the-field injuries.
The study also found that many of the players are misusing the drugs — taking a painkiller for a reason other than the one for which it was prescribed or taking a painkiller prescribed for someone else.
A major reason for this misuse of the drugs: an undiagnosed concussion.
“Many of these players explained that they didn’t want to see a physician about their concussions at the time,” said study co-author and Washington University (St. Louis) epidemiologist Simone Cummings in a prepared statement. “These men said they knew if they reported a concussion, they might not be allowed to play. And if you get taken out of a game too many times, you can lose your spot and get cut from the team.”