Concussions, head injuries, brain damage: the price of NFL fame

What action should be taken to prevent NFL players or athletes in any sport from suffering the same fate as Junior Seau? 
Photo: San Diego Chargers

SAN DIEGO – January 12, 2013 – The news this week about a National Institutes of Health study revealing that NFL star Junior Seau suffered from chronic brain damage, common to dozens of deceased former football playersm should have come as no surprise to anyone who follows the sport.

We have recognized for quite some time the dangers faced by professional football players, boxers, and other athletes who are subjected to repeated blows to the head, concussions, and various traumatic injuries. Studies have repeatedly linked concussions in football players to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the condition found in the NIH study of Seau’s brain.

It is abundantly clear: hitting your head repeatedly over many years as a byproduct of participation in a sport is harmful to your physical and mental health.

The American Academy of Neurology published a comprehensive study in the September 2012 issue of the medical journal Neurology, which confirmed that repeated head injuries cause neurologic problems later in life. The study followed 3,500 retired professional football players and found that professional football players were three times more likely to have neurodegenerative diseases than the general population.

The study also found that professional football players were at a four times greater risk of developing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and found a higher incidence of players with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

What action should be taken to prevent other pro football players from suffering the same fate as Junior Seau? Photo: San Diego Chargers.

What should be done to prevent head injuries in sports?

The question is not whether football, boxing or other sports are to blame for what happens to many of the athletes who participate. We know they are putting themselves at risk. The question is what we intend to do about it.

There are ways to make the game of football safer. Numerous suggestions have been made having to do with better equipment, improved helmets, reducing contact during practices, rethinking the nature of participation by youth and high school players, and even changing the rules to encourage a more open, less physical style of football like that played in the Canadian Football League, whose players aren’t exposed to the kind of repetitive, vicious hits as their U.S. counterparts.

The same can be said for boxing or any sports where head injuries can be an issue.

But as long as we worship football and its athletes or any sport and its athletes; as long as we treat sports as a religion as we do football; as long as football plays a significant cultural role in the U.S., players will continue to sacrifice themselves and will continue to suffer traumatic brain injuries. We can slow them down, but we cannot stop them. The only way to stop them is for individuals to make the decision they will not participate in these pursuits.

This isn’t going to happen.

In this 2008 photo, New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan celebrates after the Giants beat the New England Patriots 17-14 in the Super Bowl XLII football game. Strahan has since gone on to a prominent career as a TV talk show host. AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File

The Goldman Dilemma

Researcher Bob Goldman began surveying Olympic athletes in the 1980s, asking whether they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them within five years. More than half of the athletes said yes. When he repeated the survey over the next decade, the results were always the same. About half of the athletes were quite ready to take the bargain. This is now called the Goldman Dilemma.

Researchers recently started asking nonathletes the same question. In results published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in February 2009, just two of the 250 people surveyed in Sydney, Australia, said that they would take a drug that would ensure both success and an early death. The expected result was 20 percent.

What drives elite athletes to win at all costs is what drives the rest of us to watch their exploits, and reward them handsomely for it with money, fame and glory. When there is the kind of money involved in football, and boxing as well, with its multimillion dollar prizefights, it’s easy to understand why an impoverished young man would be willing to game on the risk of suffering CTE or Parkinson’s disease 50, 60 years down the road for the big payoff today; for the ability to feed himself and his family; for the fame and fortune athletic excellence and athletic courage can earn.

As a society and as individuals we could stop it. But we won’t. Nine of the ten highest-rated single TV programs last year were football games including the Super Bowl, the most watched program in the U.S. every year with more than one-third of the population tuning in. Four of the five most watched TV programs in American history have been Super Bowls. Two of the three highest paid athletes in the world are boxers.

We have a duty to protect young athletes such as these Pop Warner football players from head injuries. Once they become adults, the choice to risk their health is their own. Photo:

The duty to protect our children

If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell were to put into place tomorrow a litany of rules that would gut the game of the most potentially dangerous types of contact causing the vast majority of head injuries, the public would be up in arms.

What we can and must do, as we do with many dangerous activities in society, is limit the exposure of our children to them. What we don’t know yet about brain injuries is exactly when the worst damage takes place. What if the damage is mostly being done during those first few pee-wee, Pop Warner or high school football games? It could be the case that the lion’s share of the damage happens while the young brain is forming, not after a player gets to the NFL.

Emergency rooms now treat 175,000 kids each year for sports-related brain injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among high schoolers, the majority of such injuries are football-related. Now that we understand the long term effects of repeated blows to the head, head injuries and concussions, what parents would allow their sons to participate in youth football as it is now played? I would not, no more than I would let any child take drugs, have unprotected sex at an early age, or supply him alcohol and then hand him the car keys. The risk vs. reward is too great.

From the days of the Roman Empire, society has sacrificed its finest athletes for the sake of entertainment. Human nature will never change. Individuals can be fully informed of the consequences, as we now are about the lasting brain damage that looms for many football players, boxers and others. As adults, they possess free will and they must determine for themselves whether the trade offs are worth it. As children, we are responsible for them. We have a duty to protect them until they reach the age of majority when they have the legal right to pursue their desires, no matter how dangerous.

As the Goldman Dilemma shows, those with the internal drive necessary to become elite athletes will do so, no matter the cost. Fans will continue to cheer for them, worship them at the altar for fame, and pay them handsomely for it.


Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. She is also a serious boxing fan covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Ringside Seat in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego. Gayle can be reached via Google +


Please credit “Gayle Falkenthal for Communities Digital News” when quoting from or linking to this story.   



Copyright © 2013 by Falcon Valley Group


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Gayle Falkenthal

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, MS, APR, is President of the Falcon Valley Group, a San Diego based communications consulting firm. Falkenthal is a veteran award winning broadcast and print journalist, editor, producer, talk host and commentator. She is an instructor at National University in San Diego, and previously taught in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.


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