Will Brain Damage Kill Football?

The Fate of the Tobacco Industry May Provide a Blueprint

News studies note the similarity between sports and military brain trauma.
  • News studies note the similarity between sports and military brain trauma.

Military combat personnel in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars may suffer the same kind of brain damage as professional athletes, according to a scientific paper published last month. The finding could have a profound effect on American culture, and particularly on San Diego, where direct and indirect military spending is one-fifth of the economy and the professional football team — backed by downtown boosters — wants a massive taxpayer subsidy for a new stadium.

The study, spearheaded by researchers at Boston University, concluded that combat veterans who endured big explosions may wind up with the same degenerative brain disease as football players who are damaged by multiple concussions resulting from repetitive hits.

This is important because the brain damage suffered by participants in football, hockey, and boxing, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (called CTE), is incurable and can be detected only after the victim’s death.

Combat veterans are frequently treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (called PTSD), and in some cases for traumatic brain injury, but this new study suggests that some suffer the irreversible effects of abnormal protein deposits in the brain, as athletes do. Scientists agree more studies are needed.

If verified by other scientific probes, the results of this study may have enormous economic and societal repercussions because the Pentagon and the National Football League, in particular, have been scandalously slow to realize the importance of brain injuries.

ProPublica and National Public Radio have been exposing the Pentagon’s gross neglect of head injuries. They report that more than 115,000 warriors have sustained concussions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the military has dragged its feet providing cognitive rehabilitation therapy to troops. Since 2002, more than half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals have been diagnosed, at least preliminarily, with mental health problems, according to ProPublica.

The military reports that more troops are committing suicide than are being killed in battle — 154, or almost one a day, thus far this year.Post-traumatic stress disorder has afflicted 11 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and since the turn of the century, more than 200,000 soldiers have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.

As citizens learn that a significant percentage of these brain injuries could be irreversible, the public might demand that more money go to treat returning brain-injured service personnel. There could be other additional defense expenditures, such as new kinds of training and equipment design. In the extreme case, as the public learns more about combat risks, the military may not be able to recruit enough personnel to fight the kinds of wars it now rushes into.

Junior Seau’s induction into the Chargers hall of fame was noted on the Jumbotron last November.

Junior Seau’s induction into the Chargers hall of fame was noted on the Jumbotron last November.

The risks to football at all levels — Pop Warner, high school, college, professional — are palpable. It seems impossible that football could lose its fan support. The National Football League has revenues of about $10 billion a year — far higher than teams in other pro sports. The average team is worth more than $1 billion — almost double the value of the average Major League Baseball team.

Average pro football attendance of 67,000 per game swamps other sports. The National Football League utterly dominates television revenue; more people watch the Super Bowl annually than any other program. At least $90 million is wagered legally on the Super Bowl each year and possibly $10 billion illegally through bookies, office pools, and the like.

How could a sport so deeply inculcated in our culture lose its grip on the public? It has happened before. Fifty years ago, professional boxing was a major sport and almost everyone knew the name of the heavyweight champion of the world. Question: who is it now? I’ll bet you have no idea. (Russian Alexander Povetkin is the champion of the World Boxing Association, the oldest of four major prizefight sanctioning bodies. Since 2005, the heavyweight champions have overwhelmingly been from Russia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, and Ukraine.)

Football could be gang-tackled by lawsuits. As chronic traumatic encephalopathy shows up in more high schools and colleges, insurance companies could become reluctant to provide coverage, which is already expensive. High school and college leagues could fold, although the process would almost surely be a slow-moving one. Sixty years ago, few thought that cancer-related lawsuits would cripple the domestic tobacco industry and smoking would decline sharply.

More than 2000 former professional football players have filed a consolidated suit against the National Football League and suppliers such as helmet maker Riddell Sports. Many injured retired players blame the National Football League Players Association, which, they claim, in labor negotiations has emphasized compensation of current players while shortchanging retired players.

“The concussion issue, if not handled right, has the potential to end football,” says former pro player Dave Pear. Through davepear.com/blog/, he fights for rights of retired players. Later in life, many suffer increasing symptoms of depression, insomnia, and dementia that they believe are tied to head injuries suffered in their playing days. Several have committed suicide; one left instructions that his brain should be examined.

Today’s pro players have independent neurologists on the sidelines, and concussed players can’t return to a game without expert clearance. Decades ago, the surfaces (such as AstroTurf) were harder and the equipment less reliable.

The suicide of San Diego icon Junior Seau — not yet tied to a head injury — brought commentary to Pear’s blog. Said a former Pittsburgh Steelers star, “We may never know what was going through Junior Seau’s mind. I have yet to entertain the thought of taking my life,” but he loads up on oxycodone and methadone daily, and “sometimes the pain overtakes me.” Another player wrote that he detoxed from his daily oxycodone dose. “I think of suicide almost daily,” he wrote.

That kind of talk could impress a jury.

Comments

Football is immoral.

That's fine with me. Anyone who wants to engage in immoral acts, like prostitution, or smoking pot, or playing football...can go right ahead. It doesn't hurt me or anyone else who's not a willing participant.

I just don't want any public tax dollars to finance your brothels, smoking clubs, or football stadiums.

Is that too much to ask when the economy is in the toilet?

...and actually, if San Diego invested in brothels at least you'd see some TOT revenues. Or if you legalized pot, you'd be able to fire half the police force and not pay those outrageous pensions...hmmmm.

Seems like the only bad investment is football. Wonder why that's the one the politicians are so eager to spend your money on, while publicly opposing prostitution and pot.

Guess it's got something to do with morality...

Fred: you don't want tax money to subsidize brothels. What about Congress? Local politicians support pro sports subsidies for the same reason both Republicans and Democrats kiss the shoes of Wall Street. That's where the money is. San Diego's big money wants taxpayers to subsidize billionaire team owners. What's more, 20% of sports fans are wildly obsessive on the topic, hence are a big voting bloc. Best, Don Bauder

"In the extreme case, as the public learns more about combat risks, the military may not be able to recruit enough personnel to fight the kinds of wars it now rushes into." Don, I don't think you meant that remark quite the way you said it. I certainly hope you didn't. Our military services don't choose the wars they fight, and if there's any rushing into them it is because our politicians oblige a rush. And I can safely say that most of the military personnel would prefer peacetime to wartime (there is a minority who get a big rush from combat, but they are just that, a minority) when they can hone their skills and go home to hearth and home at night.

As to the general thrust of your comment, with all the risks involved, including sudden death, I doubt that one more category of war injury or war-related illness is going to change the willingness of some to serve by much.

I am not so sure it is clearcut on the military role in war decisions. Yes, the politicians are supposed to make the decisions. But the joint chiefs are providing advice, often accepted. They are generals. They won't be on the front lines. The reason we went into Iraq, in my judgment, was for oil. That was a White House decision, and a horrible one. The entrance into Afghanistan, an equally bad -- if not worse -- decision, was probably one that the generals influenced greatly. All that said, you are correct that I should have said the politicians with military input get us into the wars. Best, Don Bauder

Sorry, I'm not seeing the end of the NFL or the military. The fundamental shifting of the collective mindset of a nation will not simply fall by the wayside because of this latest info. There is far too much $$$$$$$$$$ involved for either to go the way of the dodo. And as for Big Tobacco, none of them have gone out of business despite the "crippling" curtailing of the smoking habit by Americans. They're still making mountains of money. Further, fear of CTE may hold back a few from playing football or joining the military, but it's not going to stop participation en masse. For one, football is far too ingrained and far too lucrative. For two, the mliltary is fast becoming the only way for working class ppl to go to college.

Oh yes, I hoped to make clear in the column -- but perhaps didn't -- that changes in both football and the military, if they take place, will take place over a long period of time. Yes, there is too much money involved: football is a $10 billion industry and aerospace/defense is many times that. With football, though, the insurance question might -- repeat, MIGHT -- force a change faster than now looks feasible. Best, Don Bauder

Heck the NY Times reports, "On average, 24 horses die each week at racetracks across America," so if that "sport" is not being seriously challenged, football has nothing to worry about.

The death of horses (some who were doped up) won't stir up as much public wrath as CTE among football players and military personnel. But as I have been trying to stress, any changes will come slowly, if at all. Best, Don Bauder

It is odd that changes we have seen have come slowly, but they came inexorably, and are here to stay. Forty years ago, heck, even thirty years ago, smoking was a fact of life almost everywhere you might go. It was done in the workplace, including air conditioned offices. It was done in retail stores, restaurants, even doctors waiting rooms. If you loathed smoke as I did, every day was frustrating in that it was impossible to escape the damn stuff. I'd have gone out to eat much more than I did if it had been possible to avoid a smoker at the next table. Classrooms at SDSU had "No Smoking" signs posted and they were routinely ignored. Now it is possible to get through a day without even a whiff of cigarette smoke, except for an occasional errant sniff.

This matter of head injury leading to early brain dysfunction is getting noticed, even among sportswriters (gasp!). I think it could be the next big public health scandal, and even if it impacts "everyone" and their favorite contact sport, could easily start to oblige some big changes. Yes, they will come slowly, but in a couple decades--if we should live so long--you will be able to look back and see a real sea change in football and in our attitude toward head trauma.

I agree. Change will be slow because so much money and fanaticism are involved. But smoking and boxing are slowly disappearing. Best, don bauder

I don't know if you have been following the news about football players but for the most part they seem to be as dumb as you can get,always getting arrested and fathering half a doz. kids with different woman so I don't think it will take much to get them to sign a waver to play.

An argument that football supporters are already using is that football players understand the risks when they start playing -- maybe even as early as in Pop Warner football. I would think the NFL and the helmet makers would use a similar argument in the cases against them. Best, Don Bauder

I find the NFL Players Association's positions on injury, health, and safety issues to be somewhat odd, shortsighted, and irresponsible. The NFLPA has fought against rule changes intended to prevent injury, has argued strongly against the harsh (but wise IMO) penalties against NO Saints players participating in "bountygate", and have tended to oppose uniform changes which may help safety (e.g. upgraded helmets).

Most unions tend to favor rules which protect the safety of workers - in contrast the NFLPA seems to oppose rules which protect the safety of the workforce that it represents.

Retired players feel the union ignores them. Best, don bauder

Football will never be safe, but it can be safer. The scandal is the lack of effort. This concussion problem is solvable. If racing drivers can walk away from 200 MPH accidents, football players can also be protected, it's engineering. I don't know why this hasn't been fixed already, but part of it is ignorance, and this informative article is a step forward.

Auto racing once had a very high death rate. Promoters were reluctant to enhance safety, fearing that such a move would hurt attendance. But the reforms were made, and the sport -- if it can be called that -- is as popular as ever. Best, Don Bauder

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