Head injuries need to be confronted

February 2, 2013

Today is Super Bowl Sunday, a holiday in the United States, even though it’s never officially received that designation.

It’s traveled a long distance since it was tacked on to the end of the professional football season in 1967 almost as an afterthought. A spectacle of high-stakes athletics and massive commercial dividends, it’s one of the very few media events left where we all emerge from our individually curated media cubbyholes and watch as one.

The Super Bowl is certainly not the same as it was 46 years ago, and neither are the players who play the game. Stronger, faster and more finely tuned than they were four decades ago, they participate in a game that is appreciably more ferocious than it was back in the Flower Power days. Sure, players are occasionally fined for rough behavior on the field, but given the handsome paychecks most players earn, those penalties can usually be sloughed off like a library fine for an overdue book. It’s the price of doing business. And, besides, as San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson recently told the Associated Press, “You can’t play timid.”

Even as the rough-and-tumble of today’s football reaps big rewards now, many of its participants could end up paying a steep price later in life. Thousands of former players have sued the National Football League in recent years, arguing that the depression, dementia, lack of focus and slow-wittedness they have encountered in midlife are the result of battering they experienced at the height of their playing days. Many former college football players and even some one-time high school gridiron stars say they have experienced similar symptoms, apparently caused by repeated concussions. The scientific journal Brain reported in December that brain samples taken from 85 people who had endured mild but repeated cranial injuries found that 80 percent of those samples showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease that has memory loss, depression and dementia as its hallmarks.

After a rash of premature deaths and suicides by afflicted former players, the problem has been reported on in media outlets as high-profile as The New York Times and Rolling Stone, and even President Obama weighed in during a recent interview with the magazine The New Republic, saying that “…if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football. And I think those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.” In the Illinois state Senate, where Obama launched his political career, a bill is pending that would limit the full-contact practice time of players to once a week.

It might be in football’s best interests to make changes. Look at boxing - once at the forefront of American sports, it’s now slipped into relative obscurity and is seen by many as being a pointless and brutish pastime. Quick, can you name the world’s heavyweight champion?

But it seems likely that football will correct its own mistakes and avoid boxing’s fate. In the early 1900s, the rules were changed, and such features as the forward pass and the 10-yard first down were added to help minimize death and injury; and in the 1960s, more rules were added and equipment changes instituted to try to improve safety. Already, regulations on concussions have been tightened and technology is being tested that would allow helmets to measure the impact of certain hits; once a certain threshold is reached, a player would be sidelined.

There is some validity to the argument that football players, particularly on the professional level, know what they were getting into. Glory in their 20s and 30s will likely mean a medley of aches, pains and osteoarthritis by the time they’re in their 50s and 60s and signing autographs at sports memorabilia shows. But the NFL should help ensure they are able to remember their names by that point.



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