Concussion Issue Attracts Pre-Super Bowl Attention

Calls for better equipment and protection for players grew louder in the NFL this year. It follows growing evidence of the damage caused by repeated blows to the head, and some high-profile suicides by former players.

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The NFL season closes with concussions again as a central issue facing the league. There were headline-grabbing suicides by former players. Brain disease from head trauma was a possible culprit. Penalties and fines for illegal hits to the head during games became more common, and how to prevent these head injuries is a topic that is sure to dominate the offseason. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The elephant in the room no more: Concussion talk was everywhere in pre-Super Bowl New Orleans, and some of it was eyebrow-raising. Baltimore defensive back Bernard Pollard said the NFL might not exist in 30 years because fans will be fed up with all the penalties and new rules prompted by safety concerns. His teammate, 34-year-old defensive back Ed Reed, implied he may be part of a next generation of addled retirees when he said: Sometimes I wake up and I think, where did my memory go?

But scientists working the problem, like Kevin Guskiewicz, think Reed and some of the other players we watched yesterday might not have to face a bleak future.

KEVIN GUSKIEWICZ: I feel pretty confident that if we stay this course, they're not going to have some of the challenges, I think, that the retired player today who played 15, 20 years ago is perhaps been experiencing.

GOLDMAN: Staying this course, says Guskiewicz, a long-time concussion researcher and member of the NFL's head, neck and spine committee, means continuing with rules changes like last year's decision to move up kickoffs by five yards. He says it resulted in 42 percent fewer concussions on kickoff plays. Guskiewicz will meet with NFL officials Wednesday to talk trends, look at data and discuss new research studies.

He's keen on getting accelerometers into NFL helmets, as is now done in some college and high school programs. These tracking devices measure impacts and, says Guskiewicz, could help players modify behavior on the field and reduce concussions. But so far, he says, there's disagreement between players who want the information...

GUSKIEWICZ: I want to know how many times my head is impacted. I want to know if perhaps I should be winding down my career.

GOLDMAN: And those who don't, because the data might end up in the wrong hands.

GUSKIEWICZ: For instance, the general manager or the owner of a team that's going to say, oh, wow. I had 1,500 impacts this season, and my contract's up next year. And so that's going to come back to hurt me in a contract negotiation.

GOLDMAN: While Guskiewicz works to help a sport he loves, former University of Georgia researcher Christophe Czaja is doing what he can for a sport he doesn't really know.

CHRISTOPHE CZAJA: I will not call myself football fan. When I was in Athens, Georgia, I seen Bulldogs.

GOLDMAN: Dr. Czaja from Poland has never seen an NFL game, but that didn't stop him from applying for and getting a $100,000 grant from the league for a project that may help brain-damaged players down the road. Now at Washington State University, Czaja discovered laboratory rats with damaged neurons or nerve cells were able to create new neurons outside the brain. He's trying to figure out if this could apply to concussed human beings.

CZAJA: I will trigger a generation of new neurons in his or her peripheral nervous system, collect them and graft them into damaged area of the brain.

GOLDMAN: Czaja's is one of nine concussion-related projects funded by the league. As the research evolves, there are forces working the other way. The Players Union questions whether the NFL truly is committed to safety. The list of plaintiffs grows in a massive concussion lawsuit by former players against the NFL, which raises the question: Are these all growing pains with a concussion issue, or a slow decline to 30 years in the future when Bernard Pollard says the National Football League will be the No Football League?

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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