If the NFL had truly enjoyed a moment of enlightenment about how head trauma affects the league's current and former players, its public response to Chris Borland's retirement would have been an ideal opportunity to put that outlook on display. Borland, of course, is the now-former 49ers linebacker who made an educated decision this week to quit the game due to his concerns about the effects of concussions and other forms of head trauma. Repeated head trauma over time can result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease that can lead to depression, dementia, aggression and memory loss. The disease has been found in the brains of dozens of deceased former players, and its discovery has colored the high-profile suicides of NFL players such as Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling.
In data released last fall by the Department of Veterans' Affairs brain repository in Bedford, Mass., 101 out of the 128 brains studied from deceased former football players at all levels tested positive for CTE. Of the 79 former NFL players in that study, 76 tested positive. The findings don't create an irrefutable tie between football and CTE; more likely, many of the brains in the test group were submitted by players who already believed they were affected. Still, the percentages in this study and others are harrowing, and should lead to a more exhaustive and complete dialogue.
However, the NFL's tone does not appear to have changed since Borland called it quits—at least, not in a public forum—and that's a bad look for a league that had to be forced to admit the connection between football and head trauma in the first place. The NFL's first response to Borland's retirement was to tout its own recent safety initiatives.
"We respect Chris Borland’s decision and wish him all the best," Jeff Miller, the league's vice president of health and safety policy, said in a statement. "Playing any sport is a personal decision. By any measure, football has never been safer and we continue to make progress with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players. Concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three-year downward trend. We continue to make significant investments in independent research to advance the science and understanding of these issues. We are seeing a growing culture of safety. Everyone involved in the game knows that there is more work to do and player safety will continue to be our top priority."
That's the kind of statement you'd expect from any organization lacking time to prepare a more comprehensive dissertation of why the game is safer. But in an attempt to double down on the p.r. offensive, NFL Network interviewed Steelers neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph C. Maroon on Wednesday's NFL AM on the topics of head trauma and player safety.
Maroon is a member of the league's Head, Neck and Spine Committee, and he came off sounding as evasive and unenlightened as the league doctors from the early 1990s (take a bow, Drs. Elliot Pellman and Ira Casson) who did everything possible to obfuscate what the NFL already knew.
"The rule changes, the safer tackling techniques, the medical management of concussions is so much better than it ever has been in the history of the sport," said Maroon, delivering expected talking points from a physician with long-standing ties to the league.
His thoughts on the causes of CTE were more controversial. He said that the issue of CTE is "over-exaggerated" and dropped this whopper:
"There are more injuries to kids from falling off bikes, scooters, falling in playgrounds than there are in youth football. It’s never been safer. Can we improve? Yes, we have to do better all the time to make it safer, but I think if a kid is physically able to do it and wants to do it, our job is to continue to make it safer. But it’s much more dangerous riding a bike or a skateboard than playing youth football."
Maroon also pointed to a recent study he co-authored that questioned the connection between football and CTE due to the limited number of reported cases, a conclusion he espoused in a Washington Times opinion piece earlier this year. He pointed to the relatively low rate of reported CTE diagnoses among youth football players, while failing to mention that CTE is believed to be a disease acquired cumulatively—that is to say, through repeated trauma—and that there is no way to diagnose CTE in a living person.
Finally, Dr. Maroon pointed to the NFL's introduction of more exacting concussion protocols, perhaps forgetting that the Steelers' own handling of possibly concussed players came under intense scrutiny during the playoffs this year.
It is surprising that the NFL took a defensive tactic in its p.r. approach? Not at all. But many hoped that the league would listen to Chris Borland's rationale for walking away and wonder if there won't be more young players making the same decision. Based on first blush, the NFL seems to be listening to its own voices—and no others—in this regard.