Is there a connection between playing such sports as football and brain diseases that down the road can produce fatal effects? Medical research indicates that such a connection exists, and athletes and coaches are doing their best to come to terms with the implications.
Earlier this fall, Frontline’s League of Denial documentary on PBS in October showed a prominent Black doctor being “blackballed” after he performed an autopsy on a deceased former NFL player’s brain and blamed football for the player’s untimely death at age 50. The two-hour documentary also suggested that the league may have known that playing football could cause permanent brain damage but kept quiet about it.
“The brain is the last frontier in medicine,” says Jack Brewer, whose Brewer Sports International group last June held a brain injuries seminar in the Twin Cities. “We’ve been advocates of concussion prevention and concussion research,” explains Brewer, a former U of M and NFL football player.
The second Coalition for Concussion Treatment (#C4CT) Summit, planned for January 29 at the United Nations in New York, hopes to define for some and give answers to others on such concussion-related topics as what is Chronic Traumatic
Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurological condition found in former football players.
We also asked current and former NFL players to comment on the subject: Are they or the league concerned about their safety?
“Players are playing hard, and some of them don’t really think about the head-to-head hit,” replied Joe Webb of the Minnesota Vikings.
“The way I was taught, you had to hit whatever you could hit to try to bring a guy down,” recalled Tom Darden, who played in the NFL in the 1970s.
“I think the league has our best interests in terms of safety,” noted Vikings tackle J’Marcus Webb.
“Definitely [the league is concerned],” responded Carolina safety Robert Lester. “If they didn’t, they wouldn’t enforce these new rules they have.”
“First of all, playing professional football and being able to control your body [and] never use your head or your helmet is impossible,” said Brewer. [The NFL game] moves too fast and there’s too much going on.
“The second thing,” continued Brewer, “on why the current players aren’t concerned or may not seem to be concerned is because of their age. These guys are between 20 and 30 years old — you play that game [because] you think you are invincible. I [once] thought I was invincible.”
Football isn’t the only sport where head injuries can occur. As a matter of fact, if you play any sport other than chess and checkers, you can get bumped in the head.
“Basketball is supposed to be a non-contact sport, but it’s a contact sport,” said Gopher Women’s Basketball Coach Pam Borton, who has seen her share of players getting “their bell rung” in recent years and subsequently miss time due to a concussion. “Somebody gets hit in the head, they are going down to the trainer’s room and take a [concussion] test. They have a headache or their head hurts or they get a little dizzy — it’s a big, serious matter.”
“There is a greater awareness of concussion and concussion-type symptoms,” stated Sarah Baker, an area high school athletic trainer who also works with Allina Health. She told the MSR that more coaches, as well as parents, are learning to recognize more and more the warning signs and take the proper precautions.
Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra told us after a game last weekend in which one of his players was removed from the contest, “If you get hit in the head, the trainer has to take you out to the locker room. It’s not about toughness or fighting through one of those hits.”
Heat guard Dwayne Wade agrees with such measures: “You get airborne a lot, and you come down and you might hit your head on the court.”
Both Brewer and Darden remembers getting at least one concussion during their playing days. Neither man was part of the recent $765 million settlement between the NFL and 4,500 former players who sued the league, charging them with concealing information about football and traumatic brain injury.
“I have every right to be angry, but I’m not,” admitted Brewer. “I’m not placing any blame or pointing fingers at the bad guys.”
Although there are some cries to do away with football, especially at the youth level, Brewer pointed out, “I don’t believe kids should play football until they are mature enough to play. That could be nine years old or 15 years old.”
Finally, no matter the sport, concussions are a very real issue that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“Our coalition is to help find and identify through technology new companies and new medical concepts that really go to the core of treatment,” concluded Brewer. “If we don’t do that, we are not benefiting anyone. I’m trying to figure out a treatment and how to help those individuals that are suffering.”
The Gophers volleyball team on Friday will play Stanford in the NCAA regional semifinals in Lexington, Ky. Read this week’s “Sports Odds and Ends” on the MSR website regarding the other three teams that played at the Sports Pavilion last weekend.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected].
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