Friday, May 4, 2012

Brain Drain: The Concussion Problem in the NFL

      February 17, 2011, April 19, 2012, May 2, 2012, are all dates that will live on forever. Why? They are all the dates of NFL player suicides. Dave Duerson, a safety for the infamous Chicago Bears defense of the 1980s commit suicide on February 17 of last year. Ray Easterling, also a safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers left us on April 19th, and yesterday, legendary linebacker Junior Seau died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest. All of them played in the NFL, all of them were reported to suffer concussions, but that was before anyone really knew what a concussion actually was or what the terrifying repercussions may be. Now, we know that a concussion occurs when the brain itself slams into the skull, often causing severe headaches and nausea. However, when concussions go unnoticed and continue to occur, life-threatening damage can result. Players, especially at high-impact positions like corner, running back, linebacker, defensive and offensive line, and wide receiver, have complained of bodily harm after retiring since the game's conception. Football is a violent game, as we all know. However, they didn't realize that their brains were slowly being destroyed. NFL players have higher rates of suicide--six times the national average to be specific--Alzheimers, and even depression. Some have lost complete bodily function, like Eric LeGrand, a defensive lineman who, in symbolic gesture, was signed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After suffering a debilitating spinal chord injury, many doctors said he would be forced to live off a respirator and be paralyzed for the rest of his life. This is just the beginning of an issue that is just now coming to life. 

     Before one can fully understand the problem concussions actually are, it is necessary for a brief overview of what being concussed actually means. The simple definition mentioned above is sufficient for a non-football concussion. In the NFL, a defensive back like Duerson or Easterling can tackle a player with over 1,600lbs. of force, and a linebacker like Seau could hit even harder. Keep in mind a Smart Car weights 1,609lbs. These guys hit each other with the force of a small car, yet the NFL doesn't think concussions could cause dangerous side-effects. An insurance company pays better than the NFL. That's saying something. A concussion occurs much more often then players themselves think. Let's assume a 6'3, 250lb linebacker who runs a 4.6 forty yard dash hits a player with the force of 2,000lbs. The running back, like the linebacker, is running at full speed. A collision occurs. The both players go from full-speed to full-stop. Their helmets protect their skulls, but it only hurts their brains, as the brain continues moving even after the head stops, causing a concussion. The force necessary to cause a concussion gets progressively less as each one occurs, though the severity of the consequences increase exponentially. The linebacker walks off the field for a few plays, while the running back only feels dazed and gets back in the huddle. The running back knows his time in the league will most likely end by his thirtieth birthday, and he needs to support his family. He has to go back in the game, thus he puts his career, and his life on the line. There's clearly a problem, and only recently has the NFL decided to make a change for the better.

     Dave Duerson was a safety and defensive back for the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, and New York Giants. He was an All-American at Notre Dame, and a Super Bowl champion with the Bears. He had the record for most sacks by a defensive back with seven until it was broken by the Cardinals' Adrian Wilson. As a pass-rusher along with being a defensive enforcer in the secondary, he supposedly had multiple concussions in his career, though they were, at the time, considered "getting your bell rung" and nothing more. At the time, a player would have his teammates help him up and stagger back to the huddle. Duerson was one of those players. He loved the game. He was a warrior. He got back into the huddle...a lot. After retiring in 1993, his condition quickly deteriorated. According to his son and ex-wife, he had trouble spelling words, suffered from Alzheimers, dementia, and had a terrible short-term memory. In the years leading up to his death, he was accused of many "spur of the moment" crimes, such as battery or domestic abuse, most likely because he could no longer make decisions without seriously contemplating his options for a substantial amout of time. One doctor who analyzed his brain was surprised Duerson was even capable of WALKING. In his final act, he shot himself in the chest to save his brain and left the note shown above. He knew something was wrong, and he decided to make a change for the better by donating his brain to science. Duerson's brain was shown to have a protein deficiency known as CTE caused by significant, and most importantly repeated, brain trauma. His brain was literally being destroyed bit by bit. His family has received nothing. All because the NFL refused to acknowledge football played a factor.

     Ray Easterling, also a safety, was a player for the Atlanta Falcons. A defensive captain, he was a key player for a team that had arguably the best defensive season of all time. With a tough defense, players get competitive. There's nothing worse for a man's brain than to put him in front of millions of people and surround him with twenty-one other testosterone-fueled men. He tries to get the knockout, the highlight hit, the devastating tackle that knocks out the star offensive player. That's exactly what happened with the Falcons. After retiring, his body was destroyed. He had over twenty orthopedic surgeries, and was, like Duerson, was diagnosed with dementia. In an interview with Fox Sports Network, his wife Mary Ann, said:

“He had been feeling more and more pain. He felt like his brain was falling off. He was losing control. He couldn’t remember things from five minutes ago. It was frightening, especially somebody who had all the plays memorized as a player when he stepped on the field.”

     Easterling commit suicide, like Duerson, by shooting himself in the chest to preserve his brain for study. His brain was also found to contain tau, a key sign for the existence of CTE. Easterling, like Duerson, was a part of a lawsuit suing the NFL over, according to Easterling's lawyer:

"Continuously and vehemently denied that it knew, should have known or believed that there is any relationship between NFL players suffering concussions while playing . . . and long-term problems such as headaches, dizziness, dementia and/or Alzheimer's disease that many retired players have experienced."

     Junior Seau was a Hall of Fame linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, and New England Patriots. He hit with a ferocity only seen in gladiatorial death matches. He was a warrior. He never went on the disabled list for a concussion, though, according to his ex-wife, he suffered many of the symptoms. He was depressed, hard to believe for such an upbeat man, and had the symptoms of CTE that afflicted Duerson and Easterling. He was accused of battery, a sign of a heightened sense of aggression that has been linked to brain damage and a possible lack of decision making ability.  He too shot himself in the chest to save his brain for testing. It doesn't do Seau justice to simply say he played with the joy of a boy but the intensity and heart of a man, it doesn't do him justice to write a few paragraphs, let alone a few sentences. It doesn't do Junior Seau justice to leave his family unpaid for something football caused.

     Only recently has the National Football League taken a stand against concussions and overly violent play. Commissioner Roger Goodell has become one of, if not the most, controversial commissioners in all of professional sports. He made it clear in late 2010 that concussions were a problem and harsh penalties would be brought upon those who refused to follow the new, safer rules. Some have lauded this stance, while others claim this is just the beginning of a gradual shift to the NFFL, the National Flag-Football League, where nobody can tackle anyone. They fear the "Glory Days" in which the Bears could literally break the backs of their opponents and the Purple People Eaters could probably get away with actually eating their offensive victims. These people fail to realize the days of vicious defense and ruthless hits are over. The very hits we used to celebrate are now the same hits we fear may contribute to an terrible, life-threatening injury and eventually a violence-filled life after football riddled with bouts of depression, dementia, and possibly suicide. A change has to be made. Now.

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  1. Anthony CastelliMay 4, 2012 at 8:46 PM

    Fantastic article Billy.

  2. Solid stuff man

  3. Great article Billy. I deal with concussion injuries and the public has no clue how serious they are. Very well written and infomative

  4. Nice job Billy, I hope that more people are able to realize how much of an issue this is and are able to make a change

  5. Excellent article. This is definitely something that more people need to know about. Keep up the good work!

  6. Mixed feelings here. On one hand the enormous salaries of these guys is based a large part on their short career span, and the physical punishments their bodies take during their short career. You would have to be an idiot and completely ignore your doctors to not know the dangers involved, despite coaches sloughing it off. I find it hard to say , well they gotta make money while they can while they make more in their ten year career span than many do over a life time. People have lost lives, done more dangerous jobs, for much smaller payout, for more than the glory of a game.
    Saying all that, still an excellent and interesting article. In the huge money involved in football, change it to FF, viewership and therefore money is lost. Scholarships to people who may never go to college without a scholarship. People watch it for those hits.

    1. I agree Jamie, I understand that people watch football for the viscious hits that make us cringe, and I agree with you that players' salaries are dramatically inflated, which is another reason I support a lower, harder, salary cap. However, I honestly think that the National Football League could do more for its players after they retire, whether it be covering medical costs or providing for the deceased's immediate family if football is found to be a possible cause of their issues.