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Football’s fatal flaw

Concussions, and what happens after the final whistle

December 7, 2015

FEATURE STORY

Concussion n. : 1. temporary unconsciousness caused by a blow to the head. 2. a violent shock as from a heavy blow.

Either definition startlingly reveals the trauma that is experienced in a helmet-to-helmet collision during a football game.

We see them each Sunday during the fall, playing for our favorite teams or maybe our favorite teams’ rival.

We all groan when we see the big hit and cringe at the thought of what it must have felt like.

However, it doesn’t stop us from watching.  On the contrary, until the last few years, the big hits in football were celebrated.

Some may remember the Monday Night Football pregame show “Monday Night Countdown,” and the segment that has since been discontinued.

The segment known as “Jacked Up,” replayed that week’s biggest and most bone-jarring hits with a tone that disturbingly bordered on giddiness.

Little thought was given of the health of the player who was unfortunately ‘jacked up’ during the play.  Instead, much more thought was given on how spectacular the hit was.

Over the last several years, new information revealing just how devastating just a single concussion really is has come to light and along with it, some very sobering statistics.

Concussions have become the frontlines of injury concerns among football players, but they are far from the only serious injuries suffered.

No doubt though, a concussion has the most potential for serious life-altering conditions later in life, or even in some cases, a horrifyingly young age.

Unfortunate as it may be, injuries are an ugly fact for football players.

An old cowboy saying that came about to describe bull riding, can just as easily describe the sport of football: it’s not if you get hurt, it’s when and how bad.

So, with the threat of serious, life-threatening injury ever present, the question must be asked: why even play?

The answer is simple enough: money.

Pro football: a game of inches, a game of dollars

The National Football League (NFL), was founded in 1920 as the American Professional Football Conference.

The new league originally consisted of 11 teams from several different states in the northeastern and midwestern part of the United States, with only four teams finishing the season in the league whose name was changed a month after being founded to the American Professional Football Association.

Two years later, the league changed its name for the final time to what it is known as today: the National Football League.

At the time of its founding, pro football was being thoroughly overshadowed by college football, something that would be considered unthinkable today.

Harold "Red" Grange

Harold “Red” Grange

Playing pro football was a second job for the players, and was considered to be a hobby by many.  It was something that was enjoyable to do, but by no means would you be able to support your family on the salary that was earned.

That all changed in 1925, when Harold “Red” Grange hired an agent, and negotiated a contract with the Chicago Bears that would pay him half of the gate receipts from an 18-day, 10-game tour.

At the end of the tour, Grange was exhausted but the contract had paid off handsomely, with Grange reportedly taking home $150,000.

Today, the average NFL player’ salary sits just north of $2 million, and the veteran minimum at a little over $400,000.  An astounding figure to be sure, considering the fact that in his day, Grange was the star of football, a combination in star power of the likes of Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, and Calvin Johnson all rolled into one player.

Currently, the NFL’s highest paid player is Pittsburgh Steelers‘ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger, $48.9 million from June 2014 to June 2015 alone; not a bad chunk of change for a year’s worth of work.

But is it worth it?

This season alone, Roethlisberger has suffered a sprained MCL, an ankle injury, and yes a concussion.

In his career, Roethlisberger has suffered seperated shoulders, broken ankles, twice a broken foot, broken nose, seperated rib, and more.  And he’s just the tip of the iceberg.

So when one of the marquee players in the league is injured that many times while playing a position that isn’t exactly known for a lot of contact, what does that say about the men who are in the trenches.  Each and every play, offensive and defensive lineman go through some of the most violent collisions in sports.

During the same span as Roethlisberger, the NFL’s highest paid lineman, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, made $38.6 million.  The free-agent contract Suh signed during the offseason, made him the highest paid defensive player in the history of the league.

Suh’s injury history?

Relatively light, with Suh only suffering a slight knee injury a few years ago.  So, unless something unforeseen happens, Suh has a decent chance to end his career at his own choosing, escaping with his health.

Many others were not so lucky.

Dr. Ann McKee

Dr. Ann McKee

Dr. Ann McKee, the director of neuropathology core at Boston University, spoke with The FRONTLINE on PBS said that despite much resistance from the NFL, that her mission is to bring awareness to the disease and hopefully with that, help for those who suffer.

“They (the NFL) think I have an agenda,” she said.  “I do have an agenda, but it’s not the agenda they think.  My agenda is to tell these stories.  I hear heart-wrenching stories of families that are dealing with this disorder, and I just feel an obligation to talk about that and to tell it.  I think that’s important.”

Tackled by the past

Steve Baul Seau Jr. was born January 19, 1969 in San Diego, California.

Better known as “Junior,” Seau attended college at USC, and was drafted, fittingly, by the San Diego Chargers in the first round of the 1990 NFL draft.

Junior Seau

Junior Seau

Seau went on to have a decorated career in pro football, retiring as one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history with 12 Pro Bowl selections, 10 All Pro team appearances, 1992 NFL defensive player of the year award, a member of the 1990s NFL all-decade team, and his jersey number retired by the Chargers.

In August, Seau was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, the man who could tackle anything on the field, couldn’t dodge the tackle of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.

CTE is a progressive degenerative disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, such as a concussion caused by a collision in football.

Dr. Russell Lonser

Dr. Russell Lonser

Dr. Russell R. Lonser, the Department of Neurological Surgery Chair at Ohio State Unversity, led the study that confirmed CTE in Junior Seau’s brain and spoke with ABC News.

“The brain was independently evaluated by multiple experts, in a blind fashion,” Dr Lonser said.  “We had the opportunity to get multiple experts involved in a way they wouldn’t be able to directly identify his tissue even if they knew he was one of the individuals studied.  What was found in Junior Seau’s brain was cellular changes consistent with CTE.”

CTE is most commonly found in professional athletes, and more specifically, football players.  Individuals with CTE may show symptoms of dementia such as memory loss, aggression, confusion, and depression, with most symptoms typically displayed years or even decades after experiencing trauma.

Which leads back to Junior Seau.

On May 2, 2012, nearly two years after Seau had played his final snap in the NFL, he was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.

Seau had no prior reported issues with concussions during his playing career, however after his suicide, and the report that dozens of former players before him had been discovered to have suffered from CTE, Seau’s family made the decision to donate his brain to be studied for signs of CTE.

Junior Seau’s wife Gina, detailed his struggle with head injuries during an interview with 60 Minutes.

“When (Junior) would come home from games,” she said, “he would go straight up to the room and lower the blinds-the blackout blinds- and just say, you know, ‘My head is burning.  I’ve got a major headache.  I’ve got to close my eyes.  I want darkness.”‘

Seau joined a disturbingly rapid rise in the number of former players who have suffered from CTE after a playing career in the NFL before the stricter concussion protocols of today’s game.

Many of the players who are living with CTE have joined the families of deceased players in a major lawsuit against the NFL.

Dr. McKee also spoke about her involvement in the lawsuit.

“I was called…and I don’t know exactly what to say, because I’ve never done it before, but I decide that I’m going to tell the stories that these people trusted with me to tell,” Dr. McKee said.  “I’ve got five or six cases.  I’m going to tell the stories, and I’m going to say what I think they mean.  And to me, they mean, if they hadn’t played football, if they hadn’t done these things, they wouldn’t have gotten this disease.”

Solving the problem

The lawsuit, which was filed by and on behalf of more than 4,500 players, was settled for nearly $1 billion to be paid out among those who filed.

Earlier this year an appeal was filed, and the United States federal appeals court has yet to make a ruling.

If the court decides to deny the appeal, the case would be a landmark settlement and a monumental step forward in CTE and concussion awareness in pro athletes, specifically of course, football players.

Over the last several years, since the emergence of the seriousness of concussions, and the severe conditions that can occur as a result of concussions, the NFL has taken steps to increase the league’s concussion protocol.

The NFL’s concussion protocol, a four-page document compiled by the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, with input from the NFL Players Association, NFL Physicians Society and the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society.

Given its length, it’s tricky to boil down. But it lays out five steps a concussed athlete must go through in order to be cleared to play. It states at the outset that no single timetable can be applied to all cases.

“Each player and each concussion is unique,” the protocol states. “Therefore, there is no set time-frame for return to participation or for the progression through the steps of the graduated exercise program set forth below. Recovery time will vary from player to player.”

Simply put, a players gradual return to the field goes like this: rest and recovery, light aerobic exercise, continued aerobic exercise along with the introduction of strength training, football specific work, and finally full football activity after clearance, which usually comes seven days after diagnosis.

Now, independent neurologists are on the sidelines to evaluate players for head injuries.

And of course, massive advances in helmet making and design technology, have helped reduce the number of concussions that are suffered, as most concussions suffered in the past were probably caused, in part, by the lack of adequate protection.

Hollywood comes calling

Compounding the situation, will be the release of a new movie that the film’s director Peter Landesman reportedly called “a shot between the eyes of the NFL.”

Actor Will Smith, who portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu, center, and director Peter Landesman on set of Concussion.

Actor Will Smith, who portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu, center, and director Peter Landesman on set of Concussion.

When speaking with Deadline, Landesman said that nothing was done to soften the potential damage the film may cause the NFL.

“I did nothing at the behest of the NFL, for the NFL, against the NFL. When I was writing and shooting the movie, the NFL wasn’t a single consideration, in any regard. Whether it was the portrayal of a character, or the story,” Landesman said.

“The one thing you don’t want to do is to be unfair or inaccurate,” he continued. “I had a very strong background in journalism, so it’s my instinct to try to be as fair and accurate as possible…I wanted to simply tell a story in the most incisive and fair way possible. I can tell you this. The movie pulls no punches. In fact, anybody who see it would say exactly the opposite.”

The film, which is of course called Concussiondetails the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu the man who discovered the presence of CTE, while chronicling the issue among former NFL players.

Dr. Omalu first discovered the presence of CTE, when studying the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler great and Hall of Fame center, Mike Webster.

Mike Webster, in his prime as center for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mike Webster, in his prime as center for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Webster was born March 18, 1952 in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, and played in 220 games, more than any other player in Pittsburgh history.

Nicknamed “Iron Mike,” Webster suffered from amnesia, dementia, and depression suffered due to repeated blows to the head during his playing career.  The various psychological conditions Webster suffered later in life, caused him to turn to alcoholism and drug abuse, to a point where he was actually living out of a pickup truck.

Webster died of a heart attack in 2002 at the age of 50.

Here is where the story of Mike Webster and Bennet Omalu come together.

Dr. Omalu performed the autopsy on Webster, and during the process began to wonder how such a great athlete in his time, could deteriorate to such a dark place mentally.

Obtaining permission to perform a more in depth study on Webster’s brain, Dr. Omalu discovered something, a disease, that no one had ever seen before.

When speaking with PBS’ FRONTLINE, Dr. Omalu opened up about the process of discovering what had caused Mike Webster so much suffering in his final days.

“I knew that his presenting symptamology was more likely than not, due to repeated blows to the head he suffered,” Dr. Omalu said.  “(The fact) that he lost all his money, that he was living like a vagabond, was a drug addict. He was suffering severe depression. Sometimes he couldn’t find his way home. He had a progressive deterioration in his socioeconomic status, in his personal life and interpersonal relationships…and at one point he was homeless.”

After studying Webster’s brain extensively, Dr. Omalu knew he had found something that no one had seen before.

“I had to make sure the slides were Mike Webster’s slides. I looked again. I looked again. I saw changes that shouldn’t be in a 50-year-old man’s brains, and also changes that shouldn’t be in a brain that looked normal,” he said.  “After I looked at it over and over and over, I was convinced this was something, I said: ‘OK, it’s something, but don’t make the mistake other people make and just publish it and give it a descriptive name. Name it a disease, give it a name, present it as a disease. Package it. Develop a pathogenetic concept for it.”‘

He wrote a paper detailing the new disease he had discovered, thinking the NFL would welcome such an important find as this: scientific evidence that the kind of repeated blows to the head suffered during a typical NFL football game could cause serious, debilitating brain damage.  He thought his research could be used to help solve the problem.

In a story by GQ Magazine, Dr. Omalu spoke about how his hopes that the NFL would embrace his findings were dashed.

“”I was naive,” he said. “There are times I wish I never looked at Mike Webster’s brain. It has dragged me into worldly affairs I do not want to be associated with. Human meanness, wickedness, and selfishness. People trying to cover up, to control how information is released. I started this not knowing I was walking into a minefield. That is my only regret.”

Reportedly, the NFL and team owners have been nervous about the national reaction of the film, as per the usual, the film details the behind-the-scenes goings on, but with the typical Hollywood flair of truth-exposing features such as this.

Dr. Bennet Omalu

Dr. Bennet Omalu

League physicians sought to silence Dr. Omalu by making repeated attempts to discredit his work, but to no avail.  Dr. Omalu has appeared in multiple court cases as an expert witness, and with the release of this film, his work will finally be exposed to the general public.

Being billed as the film the NFL doesn’t want you to see, Concussion is set to be released on Christmas day.

What happens next

Unfortunately, concussions will always be a part of football at all levels as long as physical contact is a part of football.  Again, an ugly truth, but the truth all the same.

The average age of a retired NFL player is only 28 years old.  Be it due to injury, or whatever the case may be, a shockingly low number compared to that of a pro basketball player or pro baseball player, both of which are around 36.

Chris Borland retired after his rookie season, due to long-term concussion concerns.

Chris Borland retired after his rookie season, due to long-term concussion concerns.

In March, San Francisco 49ers second-year linebacker Chris Borland, abruptly retired.

In an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Borland cited long-term health concerns for ending his promising career prematurely.

“The decision was simple after I had done a lot of research and it was personal,” Borland said. “I was concerned about neurological diseases down the road if I continued to play football, so I did a lot of research and gathered a lot of information and to me the decision made sense.”

Borland also sacrificed the potential of a financially lucrative career, but said the money was virtually a non-factor in his decision.

“I’m paying back three fourths of my signing bonus. I’m only taking the money I’ve earned,” he said. “This to me this is just about health and nothing else. I never played the game for money and attention. I love football and I’ve had a blast. I’d do it over the exact same way.”

Borland’s retirement gives us an eye-opening look inside the mind of the modern-day NFL player.

Why risk it all, and wind up living through the same tragedies suffered by Mike Webster and Junior Seau, just to play a game?

Considering the amount of physical punishment a NFL player’s body takes, along with an average of eight years shorter career, at the very least, a football player is looking at making less money than a basketball or baseball player.

This means putting your body on the line much more often, for a much shorter length of time, and for much less money.

While in some cases, mostly kickers or punters, where contact is limited to none, football players sometimes play well into their late 30s and even into their 40s.  However, cases such as these are few and far between.

Right now, no one has a good solution to end concussions in pro football short of eliminating contact all together.

And unfortunately for those who make their livelihood playing this dangerous game, to make the game less dangerous by taking away hitting would most likely end the game of football for good.

Who would watch and why, without the chance of a huge collision?  Because like it or not, everyone wants to see the next big hit.

The hit that is played on highlight films for years to come.  This primal draw to violence has always been there.

The point is, everyone can claim that they don’t want to see the bone-crunching violence, and blood of the ancient times, however have you ever considered how eerily similar a modern-day NFL game is to what the gladiators did in olden times?

These modern-day gladiators we call NFL players, put their bodies and lives on the line, each and every time they step on to the field.

No one wants to see a big hit or an injury, but if it is going to happen, no one wants to miss it.

And as long as there is just one person willing to buy a ticket to the violent spectacle known as pro football in its current state, ultimately nothing will be done to completely eliminate the problem.

Like it or not, our society loves to see the blood and guts.  How else can you explain the popularity of sports such as football or mixed martial arts, or the pure silliness of slasher movies.

It’s a primal urge hidden deep inside of us.  The instinct of violence is not far from the surface, as for thousands of years up to this point, violence was never far away and was never shied away from.

So yes, your average Joe probably feels bad for those like Junior Seau, but ultimately if anything was ever done to put a stop to collisions in football, fans across the country would riot.

Our fetish for violence must be satisfied one way or another.  The men who play pro football make great sacrifices, and are greatly rewarded for doing so.

Your average Joe, despite the fact that he hates that injuries happen, won’t stop watching.  And there is the key.  The only thing that would make him change the channel or refrain from buying a ticket is if the violence stopped.  Without the big hits and collisions in football, would you watch?

Let’s face it, football without tackling and hitting would just be three hours of men chasing one another for a ball.  Who wants that?

And if the resulting game results in a little spilled blood, so be it.

Just don’t get any on us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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