Concussions Taking A Toll on the NFL

Ernie Shannon's picture
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If the National Football League has an Achilles’s heal it is the preponderance of concussions driving some of its best players to the sidelines and prematurely into retirement. These frequent and violent blows to the heads of young men in the physical prime of life are fast overtaking the business of professional football at a time when the sport is more popular than ever and raking in hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Indeed, the subject of concussions has become a major headache for league fathers.

Concussions have afflicted the sport of football from the beginning. The fierceness of the game even in the first decade of the last century caused President Theodore Roosevelt to threaten to outlaw it. Changes were made and the sport limped through the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s playing second fiddle to major league baseball, but building a loyal following based on the action and controlled violence on the field. Starting in the 1960s, player weight, speed, and quickness began to grow exponentially from year to year and the helmets and padding they wore evolved to soften the magnitude of some of the blows. Nevertheless, head injuries increase significantly during this modern era and it was common for commentators, coaches, and even players to describe those massive blows to the head as being “dinged.” After such a collision, the player would often rise to his feet quite unsteadily and stumble around until a teammate would gently guide him toward his own bench on the sideline. After a whiff of smelling salts and showing the capacity to remember his own name, he would often be thrown back into battle where he might well receive several more blows to the head before the game was over.

That player is now retired, likely in this 40s and 50s and suffering some degree of memory loss, confusion, and depression, not to mention the aches and pains associated with broken bones, smashed knees and elbows, and many other injuries from his playing days. But it’s the brain-related issues causing him the greatest worry and concern.

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“I don’t want to get to the point where it turns into dementia, Alzheimer’s. I don’t want that,” says Tony Dorsett an NFL Hall of Fame running back who starred for the University of Pittsburgh and the Dallas Cowboys during a professional career from 1977 – 1988. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, he continued: “There’s doubt in my mind that what I went through as a football player is taking an effect on me today. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that. I’m just hoping and praying I can find a way to cut if off at the pass.”

Dorsett isn’t alone. More than 300 former NFL players, many of them with concussion-related problems, are suing the league claiming officials didn’t do enough during their playing careers to either protect them or treat their injuries. As one former wide receiver said recently in describing the league’s response to life-long debilitating injuries suffered during games, “Yea, I understand you paid me to do this, but still yet, I put my life on the line for you. I put my health on the line and yet when the time came, you turned your back on me.”

Former Indianapolis Colt tight end Ben Utecht has recently come forward to reveal that at age 30 he is already experiencing memory loss that believes resulted from five concussions suffered during this college and professional career. For him, the symptoms began a year ago when he couldn’t remember having attended a friend’s wedding until he was shown the photographs. Additional forgetfulness has caused him to worry that he could be suffering early onset dementia. For other retirees from the sport, depression is a common result of multiple concussions and some of those athletes have committed suicide, blaming their brain dysfunctions for their actions. Former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson took his own life last year and left messages asking that his brain be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition linked to dozens of deceased NFL players.

For their part, the people who lead what may well be the most successful athletic venture ever are not sitting idly by anymore. For several years, the league has increasingly cracked down on helmet to helmet tackling and blows to the head. In fact, NFL defensive players often complain today about the over-protection quarterbacks receive when they’re in the passing pocket during plays. Players who are suspected of suffering a concussion are quickly removed from games and tested. If there’s any hint of injury to the brain, the player cannot return to the field that day and will sit out as many games as necessary.

Yet the current rules and regulations are of little consolation for people like Dorsett. He remembers a hit he suffered in 1984 which describes as a train hitting a Volkswagen. He was literally knocked out by the tackle. After being examined in the locker room, he returned to the field in the second half of the game and gained 99 yards all the while running plays the wrong way because he couldn’t remember what he was to do. Looking back on similar injuries many player today say one can’t take such shocks to the brain over and over again without suffering some kind long-term, debilitating injuries in a future day of their lives. For many, that day has arrived.

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