Time to Do Something About Helmet to Helmet Collisions

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This whole Dave Duerson thing has gotten out of control and the issue isn’t going away anytime soon. Duerson if you recall was a former a four-time Pro-Bowl safety for the Chicago Bears, shot himself at age 50 on February 17th.

Duerson shot himself in the abdomen, after requesting that his brain be studied for evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that has become an increasing source of concern among professional athletes. That’s a heck of a way to prove a point that you have a brain injury. I’m thinking that requesting that his doctor perform an MRI would have been a better way to go about it, but hey that’s just me.

Recent studies have shown that there have been a number of NFL players who died relatively young that have been found to have the brain changes associated with this condition. Some critics are now calling for a ban on the game for youth younger than 18. That’s right, no Pop Warner football, no Freshman football, no Junior High School football, no High School football; no football.

Neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, MD, who was the first to identify the condition, has gone so far as to be quoted by MedPage Today as stating, "There is no reason, no medical justification, for any child younger than 18 to play football, period."

The condition was first discovered by Dr. Omalu in the brain of Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center, Mike Webster during the autopsy upon his death in 2002. Omalu, who is now chief medical examiner in San Joaquin County, Calif., named the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and published his findings in Neurosurgery in 2005, recommending "comprehensive clinical and forensic approaches to understand and further elucidate this emergent professional sport hazard."

The National Football League reacted with outrage, demanding a retraction of the paper. "They said I was Nigerian -- what I was doing wasn't science, I was practicing voodoo medicine", said Dr. Omalu.

Dave Duerson knew something was wrong with his body, specifically, his brain. By all accounts Duerson was doing well when he first left football. After retirement, he served on a panel that evaluates players' disability claims, as more former players sought support for psychiatric, emotional, and physical problems they believed related to injuries on the field. Duerson also ran successful fast-food franchises for a while, but his life gradually deteriorated -- divorcing after being charged with battery toward his wife, selling his business at auction, and losing his home to foreclosure.

In the months before his death he confided to friends that he was experiencing depression and other symptoms, and feared that he might have chronic traumatic encephalopathy. In a note he left behind, Duerson wrote, "Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL's brain bank."

Having three children that all play youth football and I’m kind of torn on the subject. I want them to play and have fun, but the potential for injury is certainly something I am conscious of. The last time I played football was more than 25 years ago in high school and I can remember getting a concussion on at least one occasion. Back then they called it “getting your bell rung” and you went right back out there. I can remember throwing up, having dizzy spells, not being able to concentrate or sleep, sleeping and not being able to wake, you name it.

It seems to me that since we have a game here that so many people love to watch and play, with the technology we have in 2011 we should be able to make it safe to play. For starters, the NFL should simply put a leather 1" covering on the outside of all helmets to soften the impacts. Does anyone really need a $1 million federal grant to study the fact that two soft objects don’t bounce off each other with the same force and vibration as when they collide that two hard objects do? Obviously not, but that’s not the problem. The problem here is that the NFL likes the “sound” of the collision for their game. So while the NFL will fine the crap out of James Harrison for a helmet to helmet hit, they will also make certain to give NFL films the ability to stand as close as possible with a huge parabolic microphone to record the sound. The reality is that the barbaric sound of two helmets colliding helps sell the macho NFL brand they are marketing.

The NFL’s relationship with helmet to helmet collisions is very much like the United States relationship cigarettes. The PR appearance is all about how one should not smoke however they still let you do it. With the NFL and violent hits is no different. While they appear to be proactive by legislating against it, they aren’t using the means they have at their disposal to rid/reduce the opportunity for it to occur to begin with.

The NFL is deathly afraid of losing the violent collisions in their sport and it’s a useful marketing tool. The NFL is afraid that if they took this audible aspect away from the game away, ESPN would no longer be using the phrase “Jacked up”, rather they would being using the phrase, “he made you fall down”. And to compound matters, to a fault, the NCAA perpetually follows the NFL’s lead.

On the youth level, the problem is that no one is going to make a change in equipment unless the NFL and or NCAA do. The way it’s perceived is that that NFL and NCAA would have switched to something better if it was a better way to go.

The position that no one under 18 should play football is absurd, however the point is well taken and preventive measures need to be taken. If watching Dr. Omalu doing an autopsy, slicing someone’s brain in two to show you the damage that is being done isn’t a sobering thought to those with the power to implement change, perhaps it is them that should have their heads examined…

Mike Cardano is the founder of Around the Horn Baseball and Xtra Point Football. You may email Mike @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ MC3 SportsMedia


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