When it comes to football, injuries occur so frequently that they are often considered simply a part of the game. However, should all injuries receive that same level of acquiescence? What about those injuries you never fully recover from? What about those injuries that severely impair the quality of your life even after the game is long over?
I had the opportunity to see the movie Concussion and read the book by Jeanne Marie Laskas on which the film was based. I was astounded by what I learned regarding the NFL and its apparent denial of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of the link between brain injury, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and professional football players.
The movie begins with Mike Webster, the Steelers’ Hall of Fame center, who played for 15 years, stoically giving his speech at his induction ceremony. But as the film progresses, you bare witness to Webster’s self destruction.
How does a man go from the highest individual honor the game can bestow upon him to living out of his car, out of his mind, tasering himself in order to find rest? As I would soon come to find out, he would not be the only one going down this unceremonious path.
Dr. Omalu, a pathologist among his many credentials, was assigned to Webster after his death, and through studying his brain he found clumps of a protein call “tau.” In concentrated forms these clumps form tangles which clog up the brain. This suffocation of healthy brain cells is believed to have caused Webster’s demise.
Dr. Omalu believes it is the repeated blows to the head from playing that are responsible, that football is the cause of this catastrophe, and he is certain that Webster will not be the only case like this.
As the movie goes on and a growing a number of players are found to have had CTE, including Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, Andre Waters, Dave Duerson and Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, the shortcomings of the league’s attempt to address the problem become more evident. What was most telling was the range of people it was beginning to affect. One third of its players, the NFL believes, will be affected by some degree of brain injury once they reach retirement. One third.
Perhaps I was a little naïve in my understanding of how the brain is affected by hits to the head. As I understood it, concussions dealt with big collisions, typically occurring at the skill positions, such as a wide receiver or defensive back trying to making a catch and receiving a hit in return from a player he didn’t account for, or a running back meeting a linebacker in the hole and colliding, sending both players to the ground dazed or frozen from the impact. Though I am familiar with examples of offensive lineman who have experienced concussions, it was still my contention that the offensive line was one of the safer positions when it came to being susceptible to head injuries. As I’ve come to find out, it isn’t just the large collisions that can be problematic, but rather the smaller collisions that don’t even amount to concussions but happen far more frequently, that are the real catalysts leading to CTE. Mike Webster was believed to have participated in about 25,000 violent collisions.
After learning all of this, I feel a bit betrayed by the people or committees put in place by the league who did not have my best interests at heart.
Dr. Elliot Pellman was one of the Jets’ team doctors when I was a rookie in 2006, and to learn that he was a part of the group that tried to discredit the scope and impact of brain injuries among players within the league is disheartening.
When you’ve actually competed against a player who was later found to have CTE, it is unsettling. I played against Junior Seau when he was on the New England Patriots several times and never imagined that he would have ultimately succumbed to brain injury.
When I initially heard about 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who decided to retire after one professional season for the risk of brain injury, I thought perhaps he was acting very abruptly, but now I cannot fault him. If we know the risks, then why do we still play? For me, football has always been more than just the battle, deeper than the strategy between teams or the competition of the weekly individual matchups. It is a brotherhood which you gladly fight and sacrifice for daily. It is the honor of playing a game and being considered the best. There are only about 1,700 players that currently play in the National Football League out of the roughly 7 billion people that are on this planet, and excelling enough to be counted in that small number is a privilege.
The inherent risks are there, but there are measures to make the game safer.
Through the latest CBA in 2011, with the combined efforts of the NFL and Players Association, two-a-day practices have been eliminated, padded practices during the regular season have been regulated to only 14, and there have been heightened standards for team medical staffs. Each year the NFL’s competition committee adds new and amended rules to improve the safety of the game. This year’s rules emphasized increased protection to defenseless players being hit in the head and neck areas and prohibited all offensive players from making peel-back blocks.
With the development of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, rules have been put in place regarding the diagnosis and management of concussions. In addition, the NFLPA has been integral in establishing player benefits like the NFL Player Disability & Neuro-cognitive Benefit Plan, which looks to provide aide to players dealing with football-related injuries and longer-term mental impairment. The NFLPA also partnered with Harvard Medical School in a collaboration that will help ongoing research toward the overall health and safety of NFL athletes. All of this has been put in place in order to promote health and safety and reduce the risk of brain injury. But will it be enough?
Since seeing Concussion, I can’t avoid wondering if I am in danger of experiencing some degree of brain injury when I am done playing. It couldn’t happen to me, right?
I’ve played in 165 games, including playoffs, participated in over 10,000 plays, and this doesn’t even include practices or training camps. Though I cannot remember ever having a concussion, I now know as an offensive lineman that it is the frequency of collisions that can ultimately lead to brain injury. It’s a different conversation when you are involved in the story and not just watching a movie about it. I fear the unavoidable truth is that playing football has placed me in harm’s way, and I am not yet sure of the full extent of what it might cost me.
And yet, would I do it all again? I would, considering what I have accomplished on and off the field because of my relationship with football. My involvement in the game from eighth grade to the NFL has been a journey that I couldn’t imagine not having as part of my life story. But learning about CTE and brain injuries have made me wonder if I would so easily allow my child to follow my footsteps. If I had a son, would I let him play? I struggle to answer this question. I sincerely believe that the game has and will continue to improve on all levels and put its players in the best possible position, but I do have doubts in whether that is something that I would want to let my child pursue.