The Future Of Football: Can The Game Be Changed Enough To Keep Players Safe?

By @FrederickReese |
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    In this Dec. 7, 2008, file photo, New England Patriots' Junior Seau watches during an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

    In this Dec. 7, 2008, file photo, New England Patriots’ Junior Seau watches during an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

    (MintPress) – Recently, the National Football League (NFL) has had its hands full with a number of thorny issues. Beyond the current question of the use of political correctness in professional sports with the possible renaming of the Washington Redskins, the league is concerned with the death of former San Diego Chargers linebacker Tiaina “Junior” Seau and a recent study that his death was directly linked to the hits to the head he incurred during his tenure with the league.

    The safety of contact sports has been called into question in the United States and whether or not enough is being done to protect the players.

    Junior Seau, at the age of 43, committed suicide at his home in Oceanside, Calif. last May with a gunshot to his heart. Seau, an icon in the sport, was the definitive defenseman in the 1990s, making him a perennial addition to the All-Star Team and one of the most feared men on the line. He led the Chargers to their one and only Super Bowl appearance and was a beloved pillar of the San Diego community.

    In an interview with ABCNews, Seau’s ex-wife, Gina, revealed that they were informed last week that Seau’s brain had tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a progressive neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia, memory loss and depression. The disease is typically diagnosed post-mortem in individuals with a history of multiple concussions or other forms of head trauma. This disease is related to Dementia Pugilistica (DP), which typically occurs with boxers and has similar characteristics.

    CTE is commonly found in athletes in American football, ice hockey, professional wrestling and other contact sports. It is also seen in soldiers who have been exposed to an explosive detonation or concussive injury. The disease involves the deterioration of brain tissue via the scarring of the brain mass and the accumulation of tau protein — which stabilizes neurons in the central nervous system but impairs the rapid growth needed for healing.

    As CTE is a progressive disease, symptoms of the disease — aggression, memory loss, confusion and depression — may not appear until months of the trauma’s incursion and, sometimes, many decades later. CTE can be caused by a severe and sudden jarring of the brain (in the case of an explosion) or many smaller hits and jarrings (in the case of contact sports). The majority of CTE-diagnosed patients died at their own hands due to CTE-induced depression or panic.

    As of December 2012, 33 former NFL players were diagnosed post-mortem with CTE. Detroit Lions lineman Lou Creekmur, Houston Oilers and Miami Dolphins linebacker John Grimsley, Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Tom McHale, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Terry Long and Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals defensive back Andre Waters have all been diagnosed with CTE at death.

    Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old junior and lineman from the University of Pennsylvania, was diagnosed with CTE at his autopsy. Thomas, the second-youngest known diagnosed case of CTE, committed suicide, and was known as a hard-driving player who “loved to hit people.” He was known to play through concussions. The youngest case was that of 17-year-old Nathan Stiles, who died hours after his high school’s homecoming game, where he took a hit that culminated a long series of concussive blows Stiles took during his football career. He was diagnosed with CTE by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE).

    In all, 50 football players have been diagnosed with CTE.

    For a sport known for its hard hits, these revelations seem to be beyond the public’s tolerance. It is estimated that there are approximately 67,000 concussions among high-school football players per year. That’s roughly four per football team every year. Some of this can be attributed to the culture of football, in which players are encouraged to “suck it up” and “walk it off.”

    As reported in the New York Times, a Pop Warner football game between the Tantasqua Braves and the Southbridge Pee Wees quickly got out of hand when two Tantasqua players were hit so hard that they had to be pulled from the field. The players, as young as 10 and weighing no more than 120 pounds, culminated in a 52-0 mismatched blowout in which five players from the Tantasqua team received concussions and didn’t even have enough players on the field. Scott Lazo, the Southbridge’s coach, in defense of himself, said, “If you lost that many players, you should have called a timeout and come seen me. My team is not dirty.  All the issues were on their side of the field. This is a football game, not a Hallmark moment.”

    In response to this, youth football enrollment is currently lower than recent years and is expected to decline more in the future. Parents previously concerned about the danger of the sport are now withdrawing their children from it completely. Many teams have folded in recent months.


    ‘The school of hard knocks’

    A commonly-held phrase is: “Football doesn’t build character. It eliminates the weak ones,” which was first said by Darrell Royal, head coach of Mississippi State University during their national championship run in the 1960s. It has been said that football is as close as a person can come to war without a gun. It is a game built around and designed to glorify violence; an aspect at odds with current opinion.

    An “Outside the Lines” survey now show that a majority of all parents would keep their kids from the sport due to concussion concerns. About 57 percent of the 1,000 parents surveyed online by ESPN and the Global Strategy Group in August said that recent stories about the increase in concussions in football have made them less likely to allow their children to play the sport. Two-thirds of all parents surveyed feel that concussions are a serious issue in American football.

    Shortly after Seau’s death, the family consented to have his brain tissue examined by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) toward ascertaining the possibility of CTE with Seau. The family choose the NIH — an agency within the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the federal government agency solely responsible for biomedical and health-related research — because it was a “complete, comprehensive, unbiased scientific institution of the highest level.”

    Seau’s brain was studied in a blind test — in which the analysts involved were not informed from whom the sample came from. All analysts involved came to the same conclusion: Tau protein accumulation in the brain tissue created neurofibrillary tangles, which strangled and restricted the growth of brain cells.

    In response to the NIH’s findings in regards to Seau’s diagnosis, the NFL issued a statement, generally asserting that “additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of CTE” is needed.

    “The NFL, both directly and in partnership with the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and other leading In this Aug. 14, 2006, file photo, former San Diego Chargers football player Junior Seau smiles during a news conference announcing his retirement from pro football in San Diego. (AP Photo/Sandy Huffaker, File)organizations, is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote the long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels. The NFL clubs have already committed a $30 million research grant to the NIH, and we look forward to making decisions soon with the NFL Players Association on the investment of $100 million for medical research that is committed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. We have work to do, and we’re doing it.”

    The National Football League’s Players Association (NFLPA) — the players’ union for the NFL — however, has called on Congress to intervene toward ensuring player safety in the NFL.

    “The only way we can improve the safety of players, restore the confidence of our fans and secure the future of our game is to insist on the same quality of medical care, informed consent and ethical standards that we expect for ourselves and for our family members. This is why the players have asked for things like independent sideline concussion experts, the certification and credentialing of all professional football medical staff and a fairer workers compensation system in professional football.

    “Given their keen interest in Health and Safety issues in football, we call on Congressman Cummings, Congressman Issa and the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to review this issue as well. Our players deserve the best care, and we will fight to hold the NFL and the Clubs accountable for providing it.”

    The NFL is currently being sued in a class-action suit from more than 3,000 former players, alleging that league officials withheld information about the dangers of head injuries. With the lingering outrage of the New Orleans Saints’ Bounty Scandal — in which bounties were placed on the heads of key players on other teams, to be paid if and when the defensive squad “took out” the target — there is an honest public fear that American football is too violent.

    Football faces a dilemma: Hard hits must be minimized to prevent brain injuries for current and future players, but, it’s the hard hits that fans watch football to see. According to the “Outsides the Lines” survey, 18 percent of all respondents feel that the concussion risk keeps them from enjoying the game, and 94 percent felt that concussions were a serious issue in the sport.

    However, more than half admit that hard hitting is part of the appeal of football. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, “Football is a game of hitting and contact, but what we’re focused on is eliminating unnecessarily dangerous techniques and making the game as safe as possible … There’s a way to make the game safer and more exciting at the same time. It’s been done in the past, and we believe we’re doing it again.”

    Rule changes, such as moving the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line has been shown to radically reduce the number of concussions incurred. In addition, legislation such as Washington State’s Lystedt Law — which is now in effect in 39 states and requires the removal of any player who shows sign of a concussion from play and practice — has been shown to have an effect.

    Michael Kaplen is the chair of the New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council and the three-term president of the Brain Injury Association of New York State. In conversation with MintPress, Kaplen laid out his lack of confidence that rule changes will be enough to curb this trend:

    “While certainly further rule changes, if they are enforced, can continue to make the game safer, the bottom line is that even one blow to the head or one concussion may cause life altering changes to the player.

    “Simply put, football is a concussion delivery system. The risk of head injuries and the permanent consequences of concussions can never be eliminated from the game,” he continued.

    “If players are expected to assume the risk of permanent brain injury, then they must receive adequate medical and rehabilitation care if they are injured. Players must know that they can be honest about their symptoms and not risk the loss of all contractual benefits if they admit to the symptoms of a concussion.

    “Players who sustain a brain injury must continue to receive their full contractual benefits or there is no realistic chance that they will be truthful in reporting their difficulties,” Kaplen said.

    “In college sports, the universities are treating their players as commodities that are callously dealt with once a brain injury takes place. These college players must be provided lifetime medical and rehabilitation benefits as well as future lost income if they sustain brain damage while sacrificing themselves for their schools,” Kaplen stated.

    “Brain injury is the last thing on anyone’s mind until it is the only thing on their mind. A concussion is a brain injury. Brain injury in professional and collegiate sports is a health epidemic that must be dealt with. We simply cannot allow our nation’s youth to be subjected to the unreasonable risks of permanent brain damage in the name of a game.”

    Without significant reform on all levels of play, football may be facing an extinction-level event.

    Dr. Charles Camosy is an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University and a moral ethicist. In discussion with the BBC, Camosy spoke of the challenges facing American football.

    “It seems unlikely that we will ever find a solution to this problem because — whether we want to admit it or not — a huge percentage of football fans really like football because of the violence. We like the big hit on a wide-receiver when he comes over the middle. We like to see a quarterback get a blindside hit.  We like it when a big running-back runs over someone and into the end zone. It is this violence which causes head injury and it is difficult to imagine the game without the violence.”

    Camosy continues, “And if the outcry is big enough, people will simply stop watching and supporting the game. We saw this happen with boxing. At the height of its popularity, it was just as popular as football is today, with the heavy-weight champion being a household name all over the world. Boxing today, however, has ceased to be a major sport in the popular media, mostly because of a backlash against the violence. And it is difficult to know how boxing could have avoiding this happening because boxing isn’t boxing without the violence. Football looks to be in a similar situation.

    “I am at once a Christian Ethicist and a huge football fan. For most of my life, from September through January, much of my week has revolved around football. However, the part of me that values non-violence and concern for exploited populations is starting to push back against this lifestyle. I don’t know how many more years I can watch a sport which has violence at its heart,” Camosy adds.


    A profitable business

    The loss of football as a major sport is problematic. Most National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) Division I and Division II universities and colleges receive a major portion (and in some cases, more than half) of their annual operating budgets from broadcasting rights and bowl appearance fees for their football teams. Many small communities in the South and Midwest base their economies and livelihoods around football, and Super Bowl Sunday is the highest revenue-producing day for television broadcasting.

    As reported by the Memphis Business Journal, the annual revenue of the 15 biggest college teams exceeds $1 billion, as of 2010. The NFL is the richest sports league in the world, with teams having an estimated value exceeding a billion dollars as of 2007 and an average yearly broadcasting contract of $2 billion.

    While research into CTE is tentative and in the early stages, some significant details are known. Dr. David Reiss is a specialist in the diagnosis and treatment of personality disorders and was the Interim Medical Director of Providence Behavioral Health Hospital.

    In his whitepaper “Trauma, Depression, Head Injury & PTSD,” Reiss simplified the concept of head injury, “One way of conceptualizing this complicated scenario is to use an analogy to a computer. Head injuries of all types – severe, acute, minor, chronic – cause disruptions to the ‘hardware’ of the brain which in turn interfere with effective functioning of the ‘software.’

    “That is, there are effects that are ‘purely’ neurological (e.g., difficulties concentrating or problems with impulse control because of injury to certain parts of the brain), effects that are ‘purely’ psychological, (e.g., depression secondary to the recognition of loss of functioning) and effects that are a complex combination of neurological and psychological factors, (such as when neurologically-based difficulties with concentration, judgment or impulse control lead to dysfunctional behaviors that may have their root in, and represent a regression into, reactivated longstanding underlying unresolved emotional conflicts).”

    In conversation with MintPress, the possibility of early detection and screening were discussed, “CAT [Computed Axial Tomography] scans and PET [Positron Emission Tomography] scans certainly can be helpful. A general neurological exam probably is not sensitive enough. But I strongly suspect that some relatively simple neuropsychological testing (paper-and-pencil type testing) could detect early signs that might not be obvious or even subjectively experienced. From my point of view, at least a brief (but reasonably sophisticated) psychological and neuropsychological screening should be part of the ‘check up.’”

    Football was once a much more violent sport. Similar to its predecessor, rugby, American football — at the turn of the 20th century — was an unpadded, unarmored “take your life in your own hands” affair. With slugging, gang tackles and unsportsmanlike behavior rampant, many died playing the game — 18 in 1905 alone.

    President Theodore Roosevelt created the American Football Rules Committee to make the game safe. (Roosevelt was fond of the sport; many of his Rough Riders were football players before enlisting). The rule changes that were adopted included the forward pass, increasing the down clearance from five yards to 10 and banning gang tackling and mass formations after the hike. The American Football Rules Committee is now known as the NCAA.

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