Is Football Worth Damaging the Brain?

It was the admission that made every parent of every kid who wants to play football gasp.

The question from Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky was simple. “Do you think there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE?”

The answer, from no less than the National Football League’s senior vice president for health and safety, Jeff Miller: “The answer to that question is certainly yes.”

Wow. Now, it doesn’t take an Einstein to know that repeated, solid blows to a person’s head will cause problems.

(Think of the punch drunk boxer from the ’20s and ’30s with a condition officially labeled dementia pugilistica.) But Miller’s comment marked the first time – ever – that the NFL had acknowledged a link between football and brain disease. For decades, the league had repressed information about what long-term physical damage concussions and brain-jostling head hits might do to their players.

The negative legal and scientific news against the NFL’s decades-long stand is now coming so fast and furious it’s hard to keep track of it all.

The New York Times reported in February that autopsies on more than 100 former players, including at least seven Hall-of-Famers, revealed they suffered from CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Slides of CTE Damaged Brain Samples

Slides of CTE Damaged Brain Samples

Autopsy Slides: Normal Brain on Left, CTE Afflicted Brain on Right

CTE is now seen as the signature football brain disease, which is discoverable only after death. Families of dozens of CTE-afflicted players revealed agonizing details of the players’ last days. Days filled with depression, confusion, frightening angry mood swings and even suicide.

Late last month, The New York Times also reported that the leagues’ 1996-2001 study of concussions was certainly flawed because it failed to count at least 100 player concussions. By the way, that study concluded there was no solid scientific proof that repeated blows to the head resulted in long-term negative health consequences.

Quoting the NFL’s 2003 conclusion: “Many NFL players can be safely allowed to return to play on the day of injury.”

Obviously, we now know that finding was untrue.

It all reminds me of Big Tobacco’s repeated denials about the health risks of cigarettes. They spent years pointing to the lack of definitive science linking the two.

We all know how that turned out.

To be fair, scientific research into exactly what causes CTE and other neurological brain diseases like Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s or ALS in athletes is still in its infancy. But doctors at prominent research hospitals are quick to say that anyone playing a sport that jostles the head – like football, hockey, rugby or soccer – runs a risk.

All these latest revelations have added to the impression that the NFL is an organization that cares more about its multibillion-dollar bottom line than the health of the players that attract all that money. So, is the NFL legally culpable for enticing its players with multimillion-dollar contracts at the expense of their health?

You bet it is. More than 5,000 former players sued the league for hiding the potential dangers of concussions from them. In April 2015, a court approved an almost $1 billion settlement deal with the former players.

What is the NFL’s Responsibility?

But, get this, the final deal grants varying amounts of money for those suffering from a small group of brain diseases, but not CTE. The settlement states that, unless a player died between Jan. 1, 2006, and April 22, 2015, the NFL fund will not pay out on any CTE claim.

The family of the legendary Frank Gifford, whose autopsy showed he suffered from an advanced case of CTE, will get nothing because he died in August 2015 – four months too late. Same for football great Ken Stabler, who died of colon cancer in July 2015 and was found have CTE postmortem.

Needless to say, the settlement is being appealed in federal court. And new player lawsuits are being filed against the league on a variety of claims faster than one can keep track of.

Surely the multibillion-dollar enterprise known as the National Football League can swat away all legal challenges. They’ll point to the few rule changes they’ve made in the game (no helmet-to-helmet contact, for example) as proof of their good intentions.

But, for those looking for true justice in this saga, realize this: Nearly 112 million people watched the last Superbowl – that’s a third of the country. It’s not just the NFL that has turned a blind eye to what the sport has done to its front-line warriors. So have millions of us.



Leave a Comment