Traumatic Brain Injuries in the NFL

Frontline, a PBS news program, recently ran a two-hour show on traumatic brain injuries in the NFL. "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis" can be watched online, and probably will be repeated on TV during the next year.

According to Frontline, the first confirmation of the effects of the violent football collisions has on the brains of NFL players occurred in 2002 when Dr. Bennet Omalu performed an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steeler star center Mike Webster, who had died at the age of 50. Inside Mike Webster's brain he found that he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the first hard evidence that playing pro football "could cause permanent brain damage."

Despite that mounting evidence of a concussion crisis in the NFL from 1994 to 2002, the NFL consistently denied that there was a problem. In December 1994 NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue described concussions as a "pack journalism issue" claiming that the actual concussion problem was relatively small. In 1995, NFL players attended a seminar with a panel of medical experts who described the symptoms and dangers of concussions. After attending the conference, San Diego Charger Gary Plummer said the following: "By their standards, I must've had 200 concussions."

In 1999, Mike Webster claimed that football had given him dementia. Later that year, the NFL Retirement Board ruled that he was permanently disabled. In 2001, Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Troy Aikman announced his retirement, in part, as a result of concussions he had suffered during his NFL career. Three years later, Pittsburgh Steeler Justin Strzelczyk died in a car crash at the age of 36. He had been complaining of depression and behaving erratically, and an autopsy later showed that he was suffering from CTE.

Meanwhile, the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee continued to deny that concussions were a significant problem, stating in January 2004 that most concussed players recovered quickly. Soon thereafter, former Steeler Terry Long commits suicide by drinking antifreeze. An autopsy revealed that he had CTE. The MTBI Committee continued to deny the significance of the concussion problem, despite mounting evidence that linked football to the early onset of dementia.

In November 2006, former Philadelphia Eagles player Andre Waters committed suicide at the age of 44. Like those before him, an autopsy revealed that he had CTE.

The NFL's MTBI Committee continued to issue denials of a serious concussion problem in the NFL, criticizing every study done that linked concussions to CTE, dementia, and depression. Not until December 2009, after a shakeup in the NFL's MTBI Committee, did the NFL acknowledge that concussions can lead to long-term problems. The following year, the league warned that concussions can change "your life forever." Shortly thereafter, they gave $30,000,000.00 for research to the National Institute of Health for research into brain trauma.

Meanwhile, though the NFL continued to change the rules of the game to make concussions less likely, the 2012 NFL season showed a 14 percent rise in the incidents of concussions. In January 2013 the NFL Players Association announced that it would fund a $100,000,000.00 Harvard Medical School research initiative into the health problems that affect current and former football players. The initiative's focus is broad, but does include an analysis of head trauma.

Three months ago, the NFL agreed to pay a $765,000,000.00 settlement of the lawsuit filed by retired players against the NFL for brain injuries, they suffered. As part of the settlement, the league did not admit any wrongdoing.

Surprisingly, many of the most dramatic cases of traumatic brain injury involve Pennsylvania-based NFL players. The message from the NFL's experience: Take concussions seriously. If any of your children suffer concussions as a result of their participation in sports, they must be seen by a neurologist experienced in the treatment of traumatic brain injury.

According to the Philadelphia Eagles, Quarterback Nick Foles suffered a concussion shortly before he left Philadelphia's game against Dallas. Foles had performed terribly in the game, and some are speculating that his concussion had occurred far earlier than either he or the Eagles claim. There is no evidence, however that Foles suffered his concussion earlier than claimed.

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