NFL Finally Moving on Neurological Decline, Still Walking a Fine Line of Denial
> 6/5/2007 12:08:24 PM

It is becoming increasingly hard to ignore the fact that the NFL is at the center of a long-term health problem involving its former players. A journal article from the UNC-based Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, which appeared late last week, details a link between concussions sustained in the NFL and depression that affects former players later in life. While the NFL has taken many admirable steps in recent months to address the health of those that helped to make the league what it has become, their continued resistance to the mental health and neurological implications of the sport's physicallity reek from a fear of liability and continue to hamper any move toward a solution.

In the United States, the National Football League governs our most popular and most powerful sport: football. The controlled and highly-orchestrated violence between every whistle is a strong part of the game's appeal, and it plays a large part in the promotion and dialogue that surrounds each Sunday's contests. To earn the honor of playing for one of the NFL's franchises, young men train their bodies and minds to perform at the highest levels of athleticism. The result, for those men, is sometimes a financial windfall and celebrity status. Often though, these men put themselves in harms way--they "go to battle," to borrow from the parlance of the game--for less than stellar reimbursement and job security. By football's very nature, injuries are a fact of life and almost no one is above replacement in a world where the team's success is paramount.

Over the last several years, the sometimes devastating results of playing in the NFL have become an increasingly hot topic, with the subject finally boiling over this year with a report in the New York Times. At the center of that story was Ted Johnson, a 34-year-old former linebacker for the New England Patriots who is already experiencing signs of early onset Alzheimer's. More shocking than his medical prognosis was Johnson's revelations that coach Bill Belichek, a Super Bowl winner three times over, had sent him into games even after receiving word from doctors that Johnson should not play because of adverse effects from concussions.

In what we can only assume is a direct result of that story, the NFL has begun to make whole sale changes to its approach to the issue of concussions within their sport. The Balitmore Sun reported in February, the chair of the league's concussion committee resigned amid growing concern by others in the field over his credentials and dubious use of information. The NFL's new commisioner, Roger Goddell, has taken strides to address the concerns about concussions, recently helping the league and NFL Players Association to move forward with a plan that will provide assistance to retired players who face neurological complications, including Alzheimer's and dementia. The plan took effect February and has already received 54 applications, with no one having been denied.

In another move, a new policy under consideration would grant protected "whistle-blower" status to players who come forward with any information about any teams or personnel who ignore doctor's recommendations about concussions. The AP has also reported that Goodell now requires every team to send doctors and representatives to an NFL sponsored meeting on the subject of concussions.

These actions certainly mark progress, but even as they respond, the NFL is spinning the newly emerging data to undermine the link between concussions and negative outcomes such as dementia and depression. The response by the league to today's report from UNC, as reported by the AP, left much to be desired:

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said: "We think it's interesting. But it does not prove anything. And we want to know more. And that's why we are spending close to $2 million on a study of concussions on our retired players."

His dimissal is unfortunate, but the league's move to fund more research is not just lip service. Indeed, they have been looking at the issue for over a decade, a fact that makes their inaction all the more ridiculous. Of course, when the chair of their own concussion committee is forced out for incompetence, it shows just how hard the league has actually tried.

The most difficult part of building an argument for greater safety during players careers and greater service after retirement, and the fact around which the NFL has built their campaign of denial, is that the sample size for these new studies remain relatively small when compared to the burden of proof to which other medical studies are held. Nevertheless, there now exists a growing body of research, of which this newest study has become the face, that, when taken as a whole, points toward a disturbing trend of neurological and mental health problems that hit players long after their on-field days have passed. Of course, these concussion related issues are only part of a myriad of issues that can face former players. Sadly, as news outlets have discussed in the past, most recently after the death of 49er Thomas Herrion, football can be a dangerous pursuit for a variety of reasons, all of which need greater attention from the league as well as the players' union.

While Herrion and Korey Stringer have become the precautionary tales regarding physical health, the suicide death of former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters this past November has thrown a light on the mental health troubles of former players. In January, doctors announced that they believed Waters's depression, and eventual suicide, to be the result of damage suffered as a football player. His was one of the most widely reported deaths, but the real question is how many former players are suffering in silence? How many turn to alcohol or drugs? These numbers are hard to come by or pin down, but that doesn't mean that the NFL should continue to go about their business. If we were looking into a potential problem with a brand of car seats we wouldn't allow parents to continue to use that brand without some sort of warning. So why should the NFL continue to allow players to face neurological damage even as they investigate, and continue to investigate, the various negative outcomes.

Football is simply a violent game. The NFL has crafted a thrilling and enjoyable product, and they should be commended for that effort. But just as we've said in the past with regards to steroids and drug abuse, just because the league remains popular, doesn't mean it shouldn't constatnly look to improve itself, especially with regards to the lives of its players. The more that we learn about the effects of concussions, the stronger the links to Alzheimer's, depression and neurological decline become. Instead of attempting to spin and distort the links, the NFL should be looking at ways to lessen the effects to players of football's physical nature. Common sense should dictate that we operate with the utmost caution and deference for those involved. New helmet and field surface technologies have already begun to set a course for change, but better policies regarding participation and treatment after an injury will also help. The NFL has taken steps to deal with what is certainly a difficult issue. At the same time however, the league needs to go further toward educating players as well as leading the nation's football playing community at every level about the dangers of concussions. They also would do well to expand the program currently in the works to cover all neurological and mental health related issues that result from time spent in the NFL.

The National Football League provides a great service to the millions of fans of the sport. Now they need to improve the quality of service they provide to their players.

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