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Protecting the Shield: The Concussion Crisis in the NFL

There are 32 teams in the National Football League. Forbes estimates a combined worth of about $35 billion and an annual revenue of more than $9 billion making the NFL worth more than Lockheed Martin as well as the top 5 U.S. cancer-related charities combined. The NFL has become a colossal entity not only in sports, but in all of entertainment. For many, football has become a weekly ritual just like going to church. Unfortunately, the wealth of the NFL comes at a steep price. One paid not by those who profit from its gains, but by those who give everything they have, body and mind, into its success.

The "concussion crisis", as it has come to be called, has only recently emerged on the national scene as a serious issue. For more than a decade the NFL has downplayed the potential link between head-injuries and permanent brain damage. A recent Frontline investigation, League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis, begins with the story of 'Iron' Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center who anchored 4 Superbowl teams for the Pittsburgh Steelers. During his 17-year career in the NFL, Webster became the model of a hard-hitting, thick skulled offensive lineman. His reputation for digging it out in the trenches gained him the respect of players, coaches, and fans. But after his retirement in 1990, that glory quickly disappeared. Webster began to suffer from constant fatigue. He found himself unable to maintain his thoughts, he was unable to consistently hold a conversation, and became increasingly confused. He experienced bouts of rage and an inability to sleep that at times he could only overcome by tasing himself. His family life began to fall apart and for a time he was living out of his truck. His son remembers him saying, "I'm actually getting to the point where sometimes . . . I'm cold and I don't realize I can fix it by putting a jacket on."

In 1999, Webster filed a disability claim to the NFL. The findings admitted that Webster was suffering from cognitive disability and serious brain damage that was caused by football. And although the NFL would not publically announce these findings Webster began receiving monthly disability payments. Unfortunately, 'Iron Mike' would only live 2 more years, dying at age 50. Webster's death, and the events that unfolded thereafter, would become a turning point in the history of the National Football League.

Dr. Bennet Omalu was the medical examiner that examined Webster's brain and the first to diagnose a former football player with a disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Previously the disease had only been found in boxers and jockeys. Since then, the disease has been found in 50 additional players, many who experienced similar symptoms to Webster in their later years of life, one as young as 17. The real concern is not only the discovery of CTE in football players, but how the League has responded to this discovery.

Their gameplan was simple – denial. Dr. Omalu's findings were discredited and slandered. Even after Terry Long, another Steelers' linemen, took his own life by drinking antifreeze. And offensive guard Thomas McHale who was found dead at the age of 45 after an apparent drug overdose. There was also Junior Seau, a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, who shot himself in the chest at the age of 43. Defensive back Andre Waters shot himself in the head, age 44. Offensive lineman Justin Strzekzyk, who after calling up his friends ranting about the "devil", "doctors who controlled people with anti-depressants", and "evil people in Pittsburgh", crashed his car going 90 miles per hour into oncoming traffic. All of these players were posthumously diagnosed with CTE. But the NFL refused to acknowledge any connection between a career in football and later life problems.

In the summer of 2007, Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL, organized a conference to discuss the research being done on concussions and the potential risks of head trauma in the NFL. All teams were required to send doctors and trainers to the event and experts from across the country were in attendance. Dr. Omalu, the leading medical expert on CTE, was not invited. Nevertheless, his findings were shared by one of his colleagues in front of NFL doctors and Commissioner Goodell himself. It was the perfect opportunity for the NFL to confront the issue head on.

But they stuck to the gameplan. "Anecdotes do not make scientifically valid evidence," said the Head of the NFL's Concussion Committee at the time, Dr. Ira Casson, "I a man of science. I believe in empirically determined, scientifically valid evidence." Medical experts would agree that more research was needed to determine definitively that yes, football caused brain damage, and at what rate it caused it. A pamphlet was released to players saying that current research "has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems if each injury is managed properly."

In 2009, six brains had been examined for CTE in former football players - six confirmed cases of CTE. By 2010, the number rose to 19 out of 20. In 2009, Goodell was brought before Congress and the NFL's response to the research was compared to that of big tobacco. He was publically embarrassed and could no longer stand by and deny the claims. In December of 2009, NFL Spokesman Greg Aiello admitted to the New York Times that, "it is quite obvious from the medical research that's been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems." Goodell and the NFL vowed to continue investigating the issue and to continue to ensure the safety of its players. The gameplan changed from deny to delay.

In a private meeting with Dr. Omalu back in 2002, a NFL doctor warned Omalu that, "If 10 percent of mother's in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football." For the NFL, it is that simple. Player safety takes a back seat to profit margins, and as long as the NFL is able to delay dealing with this problem, nothing will change.

By now, 46 brains of former NFL players have been examined and 45 of them have been diagnosed with CTE. The NFL recently committed $30 million to sports injury related research but substantial changes have not yet been made to protect the players during the game or after they retire. There have been some minor rule changes including the unpopular "Defenseless Receiver Rule" which provides that a player who "initiates unnecessary contact against a player in a defenseless posture" should be penalized by a loss of 15 yards. Sometimes a fine is assessed to especially vicious hits.

The problem is that it is not only the diagnosed concussions that can have leave lasting brain damage. According to Frontline's investigation, when offensive and defensive linemen collide, as they do on every play of every game, it results in an impact of around 20 g's. That is the equivalent of driving a car at 35 miles per hour into a brick wall. This says nothing of the hits that make highlight reels or knock players unconscious. This is just the routine, fundamental operation of the game. In order to eliminate these types of hits, you would have to change the game significantly. To get rid of this problem, you might have to get rid of football.

In the courts, more than 4,500 retired NFL players have filed a lawsuit claiming that the NFL fraudulently concealed the risk of brain damage. The suit originally demanded roughly $2 billion from the League. A settlement was later agreed upon by both sides at $765 million, but as of January of this year, the federal judge has declined to approve the settlement on the grounds that the funds are insufficient to cover the potential necessary compensation. If both sides provide sufficient documentation to show that the deal will be large enough to cover all eligible parties, then the suit will go through and the NFL will not be required to make any admission of guilt or wrongdoing to its players.

Future civilizations may look back upon these days the way we look back on the gladiator games of ancient Rome. Hundreds of thousands of spectators stood by and watched as their heroes threw each other at one another for the glory of the sport. The competitors were issued false promises and kept in the dark as long as possible. Meanwhile the emperor sat upon his throne, basking in his wealth. The question we must ask is how long will we allow this to go on? How long before we the fans demand a change?

I fear it will be quite some time.

First appeared in the February 2014 edition of the DoG Street Journal.