Brain damage in football: a jolting reality

The year 2013 is not yet over, but it has proven to be one of the most controversial periods in the history of a great American pastime: football. According to various studies, it is estimated that 64 percent of Americans watch the NFL. Perhaps unsurprisingly the sheer brutality, recklessness and physical nature of the sport attracts many fans and players alike. This all may change in the near future.

The relationship between football and brain trauma is becoming too strong to ignore. A key feature of football has always been high-impact plays, but the toll these plays take on a player’s brain is only now becoming clear. A correlation has been found between head impacts, cognitive problems and brain abnormalities in football players and it is inconceivable that the issue can be ignored any longer.

The problem became a public issue in August of this year, when the NFL settled a lawsuit with 4,500 former players who sued for a combined $765 million, claiming negligence regarding the league’s handling of concussions.

In October 2013, PBS’s “Frontline” aired “League of Denial.” This documentary chronicled the NFL’s systematic distortion, denial and deletion of information surrounding concussions. The NFL did everything and anything to avoid responsibility for a reality that is becoming apparent to everyone: the violent collisions that occur in professional football cause brain damage that can result in chronic trauma.

Many people regarded news stories such as these with indifference, claiming that professional football players are rewarded handsomely for taking such risks, and that they are well aware of the potential repercussions. Perhaps this is true, yet the problem is far more complex than that.

On Sept. 24, the New York Times reported the results of four studies that monitored hits to the head in children. Using the Head Impact Telemetry system HIT, a sensor-based technology developed by Dr. Stephan Duma, 120 football players ranging in age from 7 to 18 were studied over a two-year period.

Both the number of hits and magnitude of the hits sustained by the players were much higher than the researchers expected. Boys as young as seven experienced hits comparable in magnitude to those of much older players. In addition, the researchers found that most of this impact occurred during practice.

Recent studies have shown that players are at risk of suffering long-term brain damage even in the absence of concussions, which is the greatest issue people have with young players participating in football.

“Although the awareness of sports-related concussions is much higher, we still know very little about the long-term consequences and what happens inside the brain,” Dr. Jeffrey J. Bazarian, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center said.

Does the game of football have a future at the junior level with such ominous discoveries being made? Hall of Fame linebacker for the Giants Harry Carson does not believe so.

“I pray parents understand all they’re getting into when they allow their kids to play football,” he said. “Because concussions happen all the time on every level of football, the long-term damage is terrible, and we’re seeing evidence of it all the time.”

It’s time we stop endlessly denying the medical science that clearly shows playing football can cause irreparable brain damage. The only other solution is to hold our breath at every hit, hoping another life is not changed forever.