NFL Starting To Come Forward On Head Injuries?

For a while now, we’ve wondered how the NFL’s going to handle the incoming landslide of evidence coming toward them, universally suggesting their sport can be very bad for the neurological health of the people who play it. That’s damning stuff, and it’s borne out both anecdotally (in the case of Mike Webster) and scientifically (in the CBC’s study that put linemen’s life expectancy at a scant 52 years).

Rod Smith Concussion Number Four
(Rod Smith’s four (reported) concussions don’t bode well.)

Fortunately, the NFL recognizes that it can’t keep its head in the sand forever, and today marks a rather watershed moment: one where the league announces that a study that it commissioned has indicated a much higher propensity for dementia in former players.

From the NEW YORK TIMES:

A study commissioned by the National Football League reports that Alzheimer’s disease or similar memory-related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in the league’s former players vastly more often than in the national population — including a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49.

The N.F.L. has long denied the existence of reliable data about cognitive decline among its players. These numbers would become the league’s first public affirmation of any connection, though the league pointed to limitations of this study.

The findings could ring loud at the youth and college levels, which often take cues from the N.F.L. on safety policies and whose players emulate the pros. Hundreds of on-field concussions are sustained at every level each week, with many going undiagnosed and untreated.

This isn’t to say that trainers in the 21st century don’t have the players’ best interests at heart or undersell severity when they look to diagnose concussions; it’s that a player, especially one whose cognitive functions have just been impaired, will not be forthright with his own self-diagnosis, especially when it means being off the field for weeks instead of days.

Fortunately, strides are still being made by the medical community in quickly and accurately identifying concussions’; remember just last month, researchers watching guys get blown the hell up on YouTube identified “fencing” as a frequent involuntary physical response to being concussed.

Of course, since this is still the NFL we’re talking about here, there’s plenty of tobacco-lobbyist-level spin and equivocation at work here from the league. Here, in the wake of the study, witness the immediate reaction from the NFL’s suits:

An N.F.L. spokesman, Greg Aiello, said in an e-mail message that the study did not formally diagnose dementia, that it was subject to shortcomings of telephone surveys and that “there are thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems.”

“Memory disorders affect many people who never played football or other sports,” Mr. Aiello said. “We are trying to understand it as it relates to our retired players.”

Dr. Ira Casson, a co-chairman of the concussions committee who has been the league’s primary voice denying any evidence connecting N.F.L. football and dementia, said: “What I take from this report is there’s a need for further studies to see whether or not this finding is going to pan out, if it’s really there or not. I can see that the respondents believe they have been diagnosed. But the next step is to determine whether that is so.”

In other words, in these (very influential) men’s eyes, the league won’t accept the study on account of the possibility that too many players are straight up lying about having brain injury issues that may stem from their playing years.

And also, let’s be clear on this. When Aiello says that thousands of retired NFLers have no brain problems, he’s right. We’re still talking about a minority of players, and nobody’s suggesting the NFL shut itself down on account of being too dangerous or anything like that.

That all said, it’s looking like the NFL’s ability to shrug these studies off with a “hey, lots of people have brain problems” or a “we’ll need to look at this some more later” is nearing an end. They don’t have to discontinue the NFL or turn it into flag football or any other reactionary BS. They do have to be able to provide proper care for those whose livelihoods are destroyed down the road by the sport. Anything less would be cruel.