They have these new [brain] tests we have to take,” Manning said. “Before the season, you have to look at 20 pictures and turn the paper over and then try to draw those 20 pictures. And they do it with words, too. Twenty words, you flip it over, and try to write those 20 words. Then, after a concussion, you take the same test and if you do worse than you did on the first test, you can’t play. So I just try to do badly on the first test.”
The offseason deaths of former NFL players Joe Perry and Dave Duerson added a dire tone to the league’s recent discussions on improving head safety in football.
Perry, 84, died Monday, April 25 from complications caused by dementia. The New York Times reported that Perry’s wife, Donna, says Perry had dementia for the final ten years of his life. His physicians believed the dementia was caused by football concussions, according to Donna Perry.
Duerson, 50, died February 17 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Alan Schwartz of the New York Times reported Duerson sent a final request via text message to his family in all capital letters:
“PLEASE, SEE THAT MY BRAIN IS GIVEN TO THE NFL’S BRAIN BANK.”
The Link Between Football Concussions and Permanent Brain Damage
Duerson’s brain will be studied at the Boston University Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, reports Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE, is a degenerative brain disease. According to Schwartz, CTE has been linked to depression, dementia and occasionally suicide among more than a dozen deceased players. Schwartz says that Duerson was “keenly aware” of CTE, and told family members that he was worried he may have it.
Duerson is the second NFL veteran in three years diagnosed postmortem with CTE. The Los Angeles Times’ Thomas Maugh reported in 2009 that a biopsy of former Philadelphia Eagle Tom McHale, who died at 45 of a drug overdose, had CTE.
Maugh also cited a 2009 study published in Brain, an Oxford-published neurology journal, that showed even one or two concussions could cause symptoms similar to dementia.
“The slight deficits resulting from one or two concussions were similar to problems found in patients with the early stages of dementia, although they did not interfere with the daily life of the otherwise healthy men,”Maugh’s article said.
Maugh quoted Dr. Maryse Lassonde, the senior author of the study, who said that outwardly, the damage caused by concussions is not easily visible.
“They were all very functional, working, still playing sports, and really in good health,” Lassonde said. “It is only when we compare them to people who did not have concussions that the problems come up.”
With advancements in training methods constantly occurring, players keep getting bigger, stronger and faster. As a result, collisions are intensifying. Former New Orleans quarterback Archie Manning expressed concerns over the intensity of collisions in a recent interview with ESPN’s Rick Reilly.
“When I played, the collisions weren’t as bad because the guys weren’t in such great shape [like they are] now,” Manning said. “Now, they’re bigger and stronger than ever. I have two grandsons [He now has three with Peyton's twins arriving March 31]. And I ask myself sometimes: Do I really want them to play?”
Retired players are not the only people affected by these high-impact collisions. Players who were still playing have also been affected by the effects of CTE as well. In September 2010, Boston University researchers discovered CTE in the brain of a college player, University of Pennsylvania offensive lineman Owen Thomas, who committed suicide in April 2010. Most alarmingly, Thomas had never been diagnosed with a concussion before.
CTE: It Can Happen to Anyone
Offensive and defensive linemen frequently butt heads on plays, but evidence of CTE was found in the brain of former Bengal Chris Henry. Henry played wide receiver, a position that involves less head-to-head contact than playing on the line. Henry, who had a history of off-the-field incidents involving violence, was involved in a domestic dispute with his fiancé and jumped into the back of the pickup truck she was driving. According to ESPN the Magazine’s Peter Keating, a neighbor who claims to have seen the domestic incident said Henry told his fiancé “If you take off, I’m going to jump off the truck and kill myself.” After Henry either jumped or fell out of the truck, he died from injuries sustained in the fall. His mother allowed the Brain Injury Research Institute to examine his brain, and the Institute diagnosed Henry postmortem with CTE.
“We would have been very happy if the results had been negative, but multiple areas of Chris Henry’s brain showed CTE,” Brain Injury Research Institute and West Virginia neurosurgery chairman Julian Bailes said. “Superimposed on the acute brain injuries Chris suffered when he died, there was fairly extensive damage throughout his brain that was fully consistent with CTE. This syndrome is expressed not only as changes in the brain, but clinically, as behavioral changes. And starting with Mike Webster (a former Steelers player who died of CTE complications in 2002), we have seen common threads in these cases: emotional disturbances, depression, failed personal relationships and businesses, suicidal thoughts, sometimes alcohol or drug use.”
Faced with the sobering reality of the long-term damage caused by the contact that occurs in football, the NFL is working to legislate head-to-head hits out of the game. In 2010 the league sent an informational video on safe tackling techniques to each team and required the teams to show the video to their players. Additionally, the league began levying sharp fines for head-to-head hits. The league issued two fines of $50,000 and one fine of $55,000 October 20, 2010, for head-to-head hits and the players were. Greg Aiello, the NFL’s senior vice president of public relations, warned at the time that more serious penalties for head-to-head hits were coming.
“Fair warning needed to be given to players and clubs before increased discipline starts to include game suspensions,” Aeillo said.
The NFL announced in March that it will suspend players for illegal hits, starting in the 2011 season.
“Frankly, now that the notice has been given, players and coaches and clubs are very aware of what the emphasis is and we won’t have that hesitation,” NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson said. “Everyone will be very clearly on notice now that a suspension is very viable for us and we will exercise it … when it comes to illegal hits to the head and neck area and to defenseless players.”
Player Reaction to New Safety Rules
Houston Texans defensive end Connor Barwin called the effects of concussions “scary stuff,” but said the rules against head-to-head hits will be tough to enforce.
“My initial opinion was ‘How are they going to enforce this?” Barwin said. “It’s a hard rule to enforce.”
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward voiced his disdain for the NFL’s policy towards concussions. In an interview with GQ magazine published February 2011, Ward criticized the NFL for claiming to care about player safety while trying to increase the length of the regular season.
“They’re so hypocritical sometimes,” Ward said. “They came out with these new helmets that are supposed to stop concussions. If they care so much about our safety, why don’t they mandate that we wear the new ones? If they’re so worried about what concussions will do to us after our careers, then guarantee our insurance for life. And if you’re going to fine me for a hit, let the money go to veteran guys to help with their medical issues. To say the league really cares? They don’t give a fuck about concussions. And now they want to add on two extra games? Are you kidding? Come on, let’s be real.”
Ward also said that the league’s requirement that players don’t return to the game if they’re diagnosed in-game with a concussion will cause players to hide their injury in order to return to the game.
“Now that these new guidelines are in place, you’ll see more and more guys lying to doctors to stay on the field,” Ward said. “Contracts aren’t guaranteed. If a guy’s contract is coming up and he gets his bell rung—and if he has a concussion, he’ll have to leave the game and maybe miss another one—trust me, he ain’t tellin’ nobody. Look at [49ers running back] Brian Westbrook. He was an elite player who had concussion issues, and he struggled to find work after the Eagles cut him. Guys saw that. I’m telling you, if you’re a guy on the bubble or playing for your next contract, you’re going out there and jeopardizing your life to get that payday.”
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning validated Ward’s concern of players hiding concussions. When Reilly interviewed the entire Manning family, Peyton Manning admitted to trying to make it harder for team doctors to tell if he really has a concussion.
“They have these new [brain] tests we have to take,” Manning said. “Before the season, you have to look at 20 pictures and turn the paper over and then try to draw those 20 pictures. And they do it with words, too. Twenty words, you flip it over, and try to write those 20 words. Then, after a concussion, you take the same test and if you do worse than you did on the first test, you can’t play. So I just try to do badly on the first test.”
Statements like Manning’s show the league’s largest obstacle in implementing player safety regulations is the culture of football, where playing through injury is often glorified. Rework to say that not all players feel as Manning does. However, the Associated Press released a report in 2010 showing more players are reporting their concussions. The report showed from the start of preseason to the end of the eighth week of the regular season the number of reported concussions increased 21% from 2009 to 2010. Dr. Hunt Batjer, co-chairman of the NFL’s head, neck and spine medical committee, said the higher frequency of reported concussions shows “the culture is changed.”
“Based on the opinions of the trainers and the team physicians and everyone we communicate with, it appears to be a cultural change,” Batjer said in the report. “We’re trying to make sure that players have the message: Playing through pain is good; playing through pain is what sports are about. But that’s leg pain. That’s arm pain. Not brain injury. Because a brain injury and spine injury can threaten their future.”
Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk said in the same GQ interview Ward appeared in that with age and maturity, he has started to understand the grave nature of head trauma in the NFL.
“When you’re 21 years old, single, and full of piss and vinegar, you think, ‘Nothing’s going to happen to me,’” Birk said. “Back then I’d have cut off my arm just to play. My view at the time was, if playing for ten years in the league meant I had to walk around with a limp, that’d be a good tradeoff. Now I’m 34 and I have five kids, and my perspective’s changed. A limp is one thing, but if you’re talking about brain trauma, that’s a whole lot scarier.”
Barwin said although a lot of players are unhappy with the NFL’s safety rules, once they adjust their style of play, the rules will achieve their desired result.
“I think it will help,” Barwin said. “I think right now we’re not all happy with it. We hit with our helmet all the time. We have a big-ass weapon on our head. It’s hard to take it out of the game when you’ve been playing like that all your life.”
More Ideas to Improve Player Safety
Barwin’s point about players’ habit of using the helmet as a weapon is the biggest reason why fines and suspensions alone will not be able to singlehandedly eliminate devastating hits from the game. Bailes said in the Brain Injury Research Institute’s report on Henry’s death that the NFL needs to continue being proactive in reducing the amounts of hits players take to the head.
“I think football is a great sport, and we want to make it safer,” Bailes said, “but we have to continue to move forward with changes made recently and take the head impacts out of the sport as much as possible.”
The NFL should eliminate helmets from football altogether, said former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka on ESPN radio.
“I don’t think people would strike with the head as much,” Ditka said. “You would learn to strike with the shoulder pads if you didn’t have a helmet on your head.”
Penn State football coach Joe Paterno said during a weekly press conference in 2010 thathe felt eliminating the facemasks from helmets would help protect heads by making players think twice before using their heads as weapons.
“We used to have one single bar; now we have a weapon,” Paterno said. “I have been saying (it) for 15 years. Then, you would get back to shoulder blocking and shoulder tackling and you wouldn’t have all those heroes out there. Guys (would) have to worry about broken noses, knocked-out teeth, which we would like to prevent, but you don’t get anything for nothing.”
Ditka also said that if the league did not remove helmets from the game, removing facemasks would help keep players from making head-to-head hits.
“You take the facemasks off the helmets and those pretty boys aren’t going to be doing all this stuff.”
FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock assigns blame not to the helmets, but the head-first force with which players launch themselves at opponents.
“The solution to the NFL’s helmet-to-helmet controversy is simple: suspend any player who leaves his feet in an attempt to block or tackle an opposing player head-on beyond the line of scrimmage,” Whitlock wrote in a column published October 21, 2010. “Most of the hits the league is trying to eliminate are a result of a defensive player turning himself into a human missile in an effort to “blow up” the opposition. Missiles have heads/helmets. Stop the missiles from leaving the ground and you’ll reduce a healthy percentage of nasty helmet-to-helmet contact.”
While these rules might help, the biggest advancement in head protection would be an improvement in helmets’ abilities to protect the brain. In a sign of progress for both helmet technology and football culture, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers adopted and unintentionally helped publicize Riddell’s newest model of helmets, which are designed to reduce the likelihood of concussions. After experiencing his second concussion of the season in December 2010, Rodgers switched to the newer model of helmet. In the NFC Championship game in January 2011, Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers delivered a crushing blow to Rodgers’ head, but Rodgers was able to avoid another concussion. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote in his “Monday Morning Quarterback” column the following day that Rodgers credited the helmet for protecting him from a third concussion.
“It hurt, I can tell you that,” Rodgers said. “He hit me pretty good. I know what a concussion feels like. I’m just grateful this wasn’t hard enough to give me another one. That was lucky. As much as the new helmet feels uncomfortable and I’m still getting used to it, I’m really happy I was wearing it on that hit.”
Hank Koebler is an NFL Writer and On-Air Personality. Hank's work as a journalist has been widely published and he's received numerous citations for his NFL coverage. You may email Hank @ firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HankKoebler