Concussions Give the NFL a Major Headache

Recent stories about the long-term health effects of concussions have put the National Football League on the defensive. A critic says the league has made misguided attempts to solve a problem exposed by improved medical research.

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As college basketball fans know, the basketball season is far from over, but already pro football is back. Many NFL teams begin spring workouts today. Soon the players will be pounding each other again, which may lead to renewed talk about concussions. Recent news stories have highlighted the potential long-term dangers of head trauma. And over the next two days we will explore some of the controversy surrounding concussions in youth football, and as we hear in this report, the NFL.

Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN: Forty-four-year-old Andre Waters shot and killed himself four months ago. The retired NFL veteran was a fierce, hard-hitting player. Waters once was asked about the number of concussions he had. He said, I think I lost count at 15. I'd sniff some smelling salts and go back in.

Newspaper accounts of Waters's death suggested a connection between his head injuries and suicidal depression. Two months later, retired NFL linebacker Ted Johnson, only 34 years old, told a reporter there's something wrong with my brain, and I know when it started. Johnson said it began in 2002 after he had two concussions in four days. He talked about his health problems in an ESPN interview.

Mr. TED JOHNSON (Retired NFL Linebacker): I know I'm going to hurt myself going out and playing football. That's obvious. I didn't know that my brain could be damaged to a point where, you know, I'm not able to live a healthy, functioning life in years to come.

GOLDMAN: Johnson said he has suffered from depression and constant headaches. His story emerged during Super Bowl week in Miami. That's a tough time for any serious issues to break through the party atmosphere, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell paid attention.

Mr. ROGER GOODELL (NFL Commissioner): It does concern me.

GOLDMAN: And he said the league has been responsive.

Mr. GOODELL: We have spent a great deal of time and energy on the concussion issue.

GOLDMAN: Which Goodell said has led to new helmet designs and rule changes to protect players.

Mr. GOODELL: And I think a safer environment for our players, which is what we're all after.

GOLDMAN: Drawing a straight line connection from concussions to suicide is a sensational story, and not very good science. Concussion researcher Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz acknowledges he does see a higher level of depression in retired NFL players in their mid-30s to mid-40s.

Dr. KEVIN GUSKIEWICZ (Center for the Study of Retired Athletes): Which doesn't surprise us. A lot of the players are transitioning into retirement during that age group and it's just a life-changing event.

GOLDMAN: That said, it's widely accepted that the brain doesn't respond well to getting knocked around. Car crash victims, boxers and soldiers can attest to that. At his Center for the Study of Retired Athletes in North Carolina, Dr. Guskiewicz has studied thousands of former NFL players and found that multiple concussions can cause long-term problems.

Dr. GUSKIEWICZ: Depression, mild cognitive impairment, dementia, etc.

GOLDMAN: Mild cognitive impairment is a medical term that describes people who have problems with things like memory, concentration and decision making. It can lead to Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. GUSKIEWICZ: We found that you're about four to five times more likely to be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment after age 50 in those with three or more concussions than a retired player without a concussion history.

GOLDMAN: Doctors know a lot more today about football concussions than they did five years ago. Although there is still some controversy, there is also near consensus on a couple of basic issues. Football players at all levels should not return to the same game or practice after suffering a concussion. And players who have had multiple concussions have a greater risk of further brain injury. But in 2005, an NFL research project on active players determined that players who suffer a concussion can return to the same game and return to play doesn't involve significant risk of a second injury. Dr. Guskiewicz says the findings by the NFL concussion committee were misguided.

Dr. GUSKIEWICZ: You know, it just appears that some individuals on that committee are trying to protect the image of the game or of the league rather than taking a more responsible approach.

GOLDMAN: The individual criticized most is the committee's long-time chairman, Dr. Elliot Pellman. He resigned as chairman two weeks ago. Reportedly he felt he'd become a distraction. Dr. Pellman will stay on the committee. Neither he nor anyone else from the league would talk on tape, but the NFL did say the committee is preparing to study retired players for the first time. The concussion committee doesn't impose league-wide rules; each NFL team treats head trauma its own way. And many now are very protective. Kansas City quarterback Trent Green suffered a severe concussion this past season and sat out nearly 10 weeks. Still, Dr. Guskiewicz worries about what will happen if the committee continues, in his mind to downplay the risk of concussions.

Dr. GUSKIEWICZ: The findings that come out of an NFL study are going to trickle down to the college, high school and youth levels, and we've got to be careful with the message that we send.

GOLDMAN: Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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