Who is really to blame for brain damage to former NFL players?
After examining his brain, neurologist Dr. Ann McKee has announced that former NFL Quarterback Ken Stabler – who died in 2015 – suffered from brain damage as a result of receiving blows to the head in football games. The medical term is chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE – resulting from blows to the head.
This is news because Stabler an iconic football player. The unmentioned part is that CTE is frequently diagnosed among football players. Other players are diagnosed with other brain injuries caused by concussions.
Another shocking piece of news: Eleven high school football players died as a result of football injuries in 2015: Tyrell Cameron, Ben Hamm, Rod Williams, Evan Murray, Kenney Bui, Camron Matthews, Andre Smith, Luke Schemm, Toney Graham, Collin Kelly and Tekarian Maclin.
Whose to blame for these deaths? And the widespread incidence of brain damage among all football players – including the NFL players?
A series of lawsuits – the largest in sports history – have now been filed by NFL players in the case of head injuries. The first began with a suit filed in early May by a group of 100 NFL players, followed by another filing by a group of over 2,000 former NFL players. After this filing, several smaller filings have followed, and more players have joined the large lawsuit.
Is the NFL really liable for player concussions?
The latest lawsuits include charges filed by Shaun Gayle, a former defensive back for the Chicago Bears, Stephen Davis, and several other small player groups. Like the others, Mr. Gayle’s lawsuit claims the NFL did not acknowledge or properly inform players of the consequences of repeated brain trauma caused by injuries to the head and neck during game play. Repeated injuries of this sort have now been associated with brain damage.
The suit filed by over 2,000 players in early June charged that the “NFL exacerbated the health risk by promoting the game’s violence,” while “deliberately and fraudulently concealed” the consequences of repeated head injuries, according to ABC News.
The NFL responded, stating that: “Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league’s many actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions.”
The former NFL players have been suffering from a range of brain conditions, including persistent headaches, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease (a form of dementia), suicide and a variety of cognitive disorders.
The average NFL player takes 900 to 1000 blows to the head, and some of hard contacts can have the force of a sledgehammer. Some 1800 pounds of force can be created by a running collision between two players.
Who is really to blame? Could the NFL administrators have withheld information that would have better informed the players? Could the NFL team owners have withheld vital information they knew? Or perhaps the NFL coaches are the ones who withheld the facts about head injuries and permanent brain damage?
And what about high school and college coaches, who allowed players to continue playing in a game after a minor concussion? What about the pee-wee league football coaches who pushed young players to hit hard and continued to play those who suffered head injuries?
What about the helmet manufacturers? Research has continually illustrated the helmets do little to prevent brain injury. Why have many helmets remained inadequate?
And what about the parents? Shouldn’t the parents of a football player take on some responsibility for allowing their son to play in a contact sport where repeated head injuries has a proven record of causing dementia and other long-term brain injuries?
We have, in fact, known that repeated blows to the head causes long-term brain damage since at least the 1950s, long before most of the NFL players suing the NFL began their professional football careers. This information was made public as famous boxers began to show signs of brain damage and dementia pugilistica after careers in boxing. Dementia pugilistica is a form of CTE.
What is dementia pugilistica?
The word pugilistica is derived from the Latin word for boxer: pugil.
Fifty years ago, Dr.s M. Sercl and O. Jaros published a study showing how concussions from boxing caused brain damage in the Journal World Neurology. Five years later (1967) Dr. AR Taylor published a study on concussion consequences in the British Medical Journal Lancet. In 1970, Dr.s P.R. Yarnell and S. Lynch published an observational study associating football concussion with progressive retrograde amnesia. The list goes on and on. Over recent years, studies have used autopsies of former boxers and football players to illustrate the extent of their brain damage, associated with dementia and other conditions. And numerous studies have shown that football helmets were inadequate for preventing brain damage in players.
Autopsies and research over two decades ago from London’s St. Georges Medical School illustrated that head injuries produced neurofibrillary tangles as a result of inflammatory release of a protein called ubiquitin.
Other studies have shown that head injuries to those between the ages of 8 and 18 are even more traumatic, as these children’s brains are still in development and thus more sensitive to injury.
Research has also showed that returning to play after a concussion is even more damaging to the brain than the first injury, because the damaged brain is inflamed and prone to increasing damage with even a little contact. So we must ask: Why do injured players return to play after suffering a brain injury?
It is not as if the public is not aware of the long-term harm brain injury can have. Famous boxers who have suffered from dementia from head injuries include Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry, Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jimmy Ellis. Muhammad Ali suffers from Parkinson’s disease – also associated with his head injuries during boxing.
With this kind of obvious publicity, combined with numerous published studies showing that boxers, football players, hockey players and players of other sports where repeated head trauma occurs have long-term memory and brain damage problems, the issue is not the lack of information or research connecting repeated brain injury to long-term brain damage.
Any of those involved with the football players, including parents, early coaches, professional coaches, team franchise owners, helmet manufacturers, football trainers and NFL league officials should have and likely were aware of the long-term risks of brain damage among football players. Not to mention medical doctors who read these studies and autopsies.
But who is missing from this list of responsibility? What is the all-important component missing from this discussion among the media, lawyers, players and the NFL? Besides, of course, the players themselves, whom we can assume were too young to be held responsible for much of the brain damage occurring during their youth and early football careers.
The role of money
The missing component is money, and those responsible for supplying the money to finance these sports: The fans.
Yes, any of us who have pulled out ten, twenty, fifty and now hundreds of bucks to pay for a seat in a football stadium. Any of us who have gone to a pee-wee, high school or college game and supported the team by buying tickets or providing other financial assistance.
The fans are ultimately responsible for the brain injuries to both boxers and football players.
The general public also has a role to play in responsibility. Once the information that repeated head injuries causes brain damage was available to the public, the public should have stopped this brutal massacre of young men’s brains through legislation – just as we pass legislation that makes it illegal to knock someone out with a baseball bat.
Whether it would have occurred through the banning these sports by local, state or federal governments – just as chicken fights and dog fights have been banned – or simply by consumers not paying to see these young men to become brain damaged – we are ultimately responsible for the brain damage of players of these sports.
The fans could easily have prevented many of these young men, simply by not attending and funding these brutal contests. We could have stopped attending boxing matches where two men brutally attack each other and death is sometimes the result. We could have easily demanded that sports like football are amended to remove the punishing physical contact associated with them. (The author remembers his childhood flag-football days with fondness.)
European football is a prime example of a sport that results in reduced risk of repeated brain injury, outside of players using their heads to hit the ball – a cause of brain injury especially among women players who tend to have have weaker necks. This is an extremely exciting sport that avoids head bashing. European football – or soccer as Americans like to call it – is significantly safer to the brain than American football according to the research.
And what is going to a stadium to watch boxers, football players, hockey players and now ultimate fighters attack each other, inflicting long-term brain damage and other conditions reminiscent of?
Remember the Roman Colosseum where people were maimed and attacked by lions, soldiers and other brutal means in front of cheering fans? Is there really much difference between this and our attending and financing sports that result in permanent brain damage to young men?
Each of us makes this decision. Each of us decides whether or not to support and finance sports that result in young men becoming permanently brain damaged. It is our money that funds the league owners, coaches and trainers to support the use of force in football.
Ultimately it is the fans’ money that finances the lavish salaries that attract young men to this brutal sport. It is our cheering adoration of the sport, our television watching and our media attention that motivates young men to pound on each other, causing each other long-term brain damage, memory loss and dementia.
Yes, the fans and the public are ultimately to blame for these barbaric sports. And only the fans and the public can ultimately change their rules. Each of us controls the tools of power: Our wallets and our votes.
ESPN. Doctor: ‘No question’ that NFL great Ken Stabler had CTE. ABC News. Feb. 9, 2016. Accessed Feb. 11, 2016
Kahler K, Greene D. The Game’s Tragic Toll. Sports Illustrated. Nov. 24, 2015. Accessed Feb. 11, 2016
Sercl M, Jaros O. The mechanisms of cerebral concussion in boxing and their consequences. World Neurol. 1962 May;3:351-8.
Gurdjian ES, Hodgson VR, Hardy WG, Patrick LM, Lissner HR. Evaluation of the protective characteristics of helmets in sports. J Trauma. 1964 May;4:309-24.
Yarnell PR, Lynch S. Progressive retrograde amnesia in concussed football players: observation shortly post impact. Neurology. 1970 Apr;20(4):416-7.
Beaussart M, Beaussart-Boulengé L. “Experimental” study of cerebral concussion in 123 amateur boxers, by clinical examination and EEG before and immediately after fights. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol. 1970 Nov;29(5):529-30.
Lynch S, Yarnell PR. Retrograde amnesia: delayed forgetting after concussion. Am J Psychol. 1973 Sep;86(3):643-5.
Blazina ME, Carlson GJ, Drake EC. Head injuries in athletics. J Sports Med. 1974 Jan-Feb;2(1):51-6.
Gronwall D, Wrightson P. Cumulative effect of concussion. Lancet. 1975 Nov 22;2(7943):995-7.
Tysvaer A, Storli O. Association football injuries to the brain. A preliminary report. Br J Sports Med. 1981 Sep;15(3):163-6.
Gerberich SG, Priest JD, Boen JR, Straub CP, Maxwell RE. Concussion incidences and severity in secondary school varsity football players. Am J Public Health. 1983 Dec;73(12):1370-5.
Saunders RL, Harbaugh RE. The second impact in catastrophic contact-sports head trauma. JAMA. 1984 Jul 27;252(4):538-9.
Baker RJ, Patel DR. Sports related mild traumatic brain injury in adolescents. Indian J Pediatr. 2000 May;67(5):317-21.
Naunheim RS, Standeven J, Richter C, Lewis LM. Comparison of impact data in hockey, football, and soccer. J Trauma. 2000 May;48(5):938-41.