The only time I was ever knocked completely unconscious was when I was 12 years old. I was on the middle-school football team of my Catholic church, and it was during a football practice on a beautiful afternoon in early fall. As a rite of passage in football practice, the smaller 6th-graders (which included me) had to tackle the larger 8th graders who were running straight at us with a football tucked in their arms. When my turn came, the strongest, fastest 8th grader came sprinting towards me and put his helmet down, preparing to run over me. I steeled my muscles, leaned forward, opened my arms, and put my head down, too.I remember just a split second of the great crash sound our helmets made upon collision. I don’t remember anything else until I found myself looking up at the sky, with a circle of people looking down at me. (This same perspective is in movies many times, to comical effect.) My coaches were chuckling as I reacted to the horrible scent of “smelling salts” that were waved under my nose to revive me and my face twisted back to life.
I had experienced a serious concussion. I was dizzy, had a headache, and my eyes had a hard time focusing for the rest of the day. But in American football, the cure is to “walk it off” and get back into the game. For me, the concussion was a one-time experience. For players in America’s National Football League, concussions are a way of life.
The stylized violence of hard-hitting is an American football tradition, and a favorite of football audiences. Broadcasts of games repeat the most violent tackles with instant replay, often using slow motion to enhance the drama of the hit. Over the years, NFL Films has created several video collections with hours of player collisions, with titles like “Crunch Course,” “Moment of Impact,” and “NFL’s Hardest Hits.”
Until recent years, the opening segment of the popular Monday Night Football television broadcast featured a computer-generated image of helmets from the two opposing teams colliding and exploding.
Now, though, the decades of professional football’s popularity has produced a group of retired players in their 30s, 40s, 50s and older who are experiencing the trauma of brain damage. The diagnosis is CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can leave its victims with problems like hearing loss, memory loss, aggression, depression, and overall dementia.
CTE can only be confirmed upon death, when the interior of the brain can be examined to show the build-up of a protein that strangles neurons, not unlike what happens in much older patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Several distraught players with CTE have committed suicide. Dave Duerson, who played in the NFL in the 1980s and 1990s, killed himself in 2011 at age 50 with a gunshot to the chest. He left a message to his family, requesting that his brain be studied for CTE. Researchers confirmed that he had it. In 2012, just two years after he retired from the field, NFL star Junior Seau committed suicide in the same way, shooting himself in his chest, at age 43. Researchers checked his brain and confirmed that he had CTE as well.
The concussion problem for football players is not caused by only the big concussions that knock them unconscious. CTE is also the result of what researchers call smaller “sub-concussions” – the hits to the head that happen many times during a game, and that can number in the hundreds and thousands over the course of a career. It’s the same affliction suffered by boxers like Muhammad Ali, who live with brains damaged by a lifetime of sub-concussions.
In the superb 2013 book League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for the Truth, investigative reporters (and brothers) Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru explain that the NFL spent years responding to the crisis of concussions first by covering it up, then denying it, then generating their own scientific studies to dispute the independent research. The NFL’s response mirrors the same deceptive tactics used by big tobacco companies for decades to deny smoking’s link to cancer.
The NFL has a lot to protect. Their business is a $10 billion industry, and the very nature of the game requires hulking players to knock their heads and bodies into other very large players, often running at full speed. The NFL has proposed to quiet a group of 4,000 retired players with a $760 million settlement to cover their head trauma expenses, on the condition that they drop any future lawsuits.
As long as the NFL has its fans, it will have the money to settle lawsuits of brain damaged players. But, America’s attitude on football is already changing. News stories about the effects of football concussions are now common, and youth football league participation has dropped nearly 10 percent in the past two years, as parents have grown scared of the impact of the game on their children’s health.
The 48th Super Bowl, the professional football championship that is like a national holiday in America, will happen on February 2. It will again attract the largest television audience of the year, with big viewing parties in houses all across the country. But, many viewers will be watching the game differently, as the “fun” of watching will be dampened by the knowledge that each impact could be damaging the players’ brains.
A version of this article appeared in Népszabadság, Hungary’s leading daily newspaper, on February 3, 2014.
Photo: By photo taken by flickr user SteelCityHobbies (flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons