The Dark Side of Football: Brain Injuries

Jessica Gwinn
By Jessica GwinnOctober 10, 2013

Every fall, football season brings with it a sense of all-American competitive spirit, nostalgia, and, let’s be honest, a lot of tailgating fun. But, as more and more information comes to light about the traumatic, often lethal, dangers to the brain as a result of this sport, there’s a much darker side that we simply can’t ignore.

Tuesday’s PBS Frontline documentary  ‘League of Denial’ documentary tackles the serious subject of concussions and other brain injury suffered during play and does so relentlessly — for a very good reason. The NFL’s attempts to cover up the gravity of these injuries is ongoing but ‘League of Denial’ shatters their convenient bubble with heartbreaking stories and alarming facts.

What a Football Player’s Brain Can Look Like

The beginning of the film focuses specifically on Mike Webster, former Steelers offensive lineman, and the struggles he dealt with after football.

Webster’s brain is credited as one of the first to show that the damage football could cause; when Webster died at only age 50, Oncologist and Neuropathologist, Dr. Bennett Omalu, known as the “brain seeker” in some circles, decided to preserve his brain, finding in Webster’s brain what is now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It’s also the disease that Chargers linebacker Junior Seau was found to have after his suicide.

“If I had not been told [Webster’s] age I would have thought he was 70,” Dr. Omalu said of the 50-year-old Webster.

Things quickly shift toward Frontline’s straight-up accusation that the NFL knew the danger of concussions all along and did its best to cover up any concerns over the issue. There aren’t many punches pulled in the documentary, with Frontline claiming the Paul Tagliabue regime appointed doctors who consistently denied the link between mental health issues and the NFL, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

But none of this is really news.

It’s merely a much deeper look at an ongoing problem and an opportunity to generate greater awareness of the connection between brain injury in football players and its subsequent neurodegenerative consequences. Airing smack dab in the middle of football season also makes it rather timely — and eye-opening. And let’s not forget that the NFL reached a $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries among its 18,000 retired players, agreeing to compensate victims, pay for medical exams and underwrite research.

All right before this provocative documentary aired.

What We Already Know About Brain Injury and Dementia

As it was found in a September 2012 study published in Neurology, from data gathered on 3,439 ex-professional football players, average age 57 years, who had played during at least five seasons from 1959 to 1988 for the NFL had triple the risk of death caused by diseases that destroy or damage brain cells compared to other people and four a times greater risk of dying from ALS or Alzheimer’s disease.

So will this knowledge, coupled with Frontline’s compelling documentary really change anything?

New York Magazine’s Dan Amira admitted that watching football after screening the documentary “wasn’t the same,” but acknowledged that parents of young players may pose the ultimate threat to the NFL. Characters in the film itself compare the NFL to Big Tobacco, which met its day of reckoning in court in the 1990s after long denying the connection between cigarettes and cancer.

The Future of Football

Hearkening the era of fierce gladiators facing imminent death in the Colosseum, football has long been a game about warriors, about men against men, about toughness and tenacity. As Americans, we love our game.

But do we love our players as much as we love the game?

As one NFL doctor who secretly met with Dr. Bennett Omalu posited, do you know the implications of what you’re doing?

“If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”

Knowing what we know about the risks, and knowing what we know about the painful, tragic effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s, would we want our sons, brothers or friends to play football? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Jessica Gwinn

Jessica Gwinn

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