I went to a very cool event last night here at Northwestern, sponsored by a number of groups including the Medical Humanties and Bioethics program. They brought New York Times editor Jason Stallman to speak about series of articles the NYT published (written by Alan Schwarz) about football players and the long-term effects of concussions they sustained while playing.
In addition to Jason, the program also featured commentaries by physicians who work directly with players both on collegiate and professional teams, and a group discussion with many participants who are also neurosurgeons/neurologists.
The end result was a fascinating conversation that made me think a lot about being an NFL fan. I know that concussions have been front and center lately, both with the congressional hearing and high-profile players like Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner missing games (to the chagrin of some of their teammates) after suffering concussions.
What I didn't know was just how many former players are suffering from the after-effects of brain injury, such as depression, dementia, and even suicide. In fact, a recent study commissioned by the NFL and conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research found that, in men ages 30-49, Alzheimer's Disease and other memory-related problems have been diagnosed in 19 times more NFL players than members of the general population. The study isn't perfect (it was not peer-reviewed and it was conducted over the phone- more on that here) but other, independent studies suggest similar links.
Thankfully, while denying the connection in the past, the NFL has finally stepped up and instated a new policy that prohibits players who suffer concussions from returning to the field during the same game. However, this is just one, very small step toward fixing a big problem.
One might ask, knowing the risks that repeated concussions pose, why would players return to the game immediately anyway? And, if they're still showing symptoms, why would they practice or play the next week? Many reasons, actually. First, there is a very real conflict of interest presented by team doctors who are clearing players to get back out there, because, in most cases, they're on the teams' payrolls. Where does the line get drawn? What about pressure from coaches to get their best man back in the game, even if his condition is questionable? And does it matter if it's the Super Bowl, or just the second game of the season?
Or what if a player isn't honest about their symptoms, how they're really feeling? And what if they, too, are pressured by the coaching staff, or other players? The "culture of toughness" is very real in the NFL, and many players have admitted to playing down pain or outright lying so they aren't taken out of a game.
So what do I say to this? "C'mon man!" It's the same thing that Chris Berman and his crew on ESPN's Monday Night Countdown say to the players when they shank a punt or drop a well-thrown pass. So now I'm saying it to the NFL. What else can we do to protect these players and provide for those who do sustain serious injury? I'm not suggesting we fundamentally change the game- football is a rough sport to say the least, and those who play know what they're getting into at a young age. But there are reasonable measures, starting with the most recent mandate, that can make it easier for players to be honest about injuries or reduce injuries in the first place while maintaining the "culture of toughness."
Besides, this isn't just a problem for grown men who are paid to play. It filters down to college and high school athletes as well, many that don't have access to dedicated medical staff and, despite injury, might be vying for a college scholarship or coveted spot in the draft for their livelihood. Can the NFL set a better example?