Concussion in sports

The serious problem of football players suffering brain damage from repeated concussions is becoming a big issue. The National Football League has managed to strike a deal with the players union that temporarily takes it out of the courts and as hard as it may be to imagine in these days when football is so popular, I think it is only a matter of time before we begin to view it that same way we now view gladiatorial contests of the past.

The NFL has gone flat out to try and bury this issue, to the extent of forcing ESPN to back out of a collaboration with PBS’s Frontline to produce a program on the topic.

According to Times writers James Andrew Miller and Ken Belson, ESPN withdrew from this unique investigative project, titled League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, because of pressure from their most profitable broadcast partner, the almighty NFL. As Miller and Belson reported, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sat down for lunch with John Skipper, ESPN’s president; John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production; and Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network, and cracked the whip. After their luncheon it was quickly announced that there would be no ESPN logos, branding, or promotion for “League of Denial.” This move comes despite the fact that two of their most high-profile journalists, brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, did the lion’s share of work on the project and will even have a book with the same title released in conjunction with the film.

The program will be produced anyway, and there is also a new documentary Head Games that is in the pipeline, produced by the same people who created the much acclaimed Hoop Dreams. Here is the trailer.

The idea of people risking their health and even their lives merely for the entertainment of others will (I hope) soon be seen as monstrous. Boxing already has started to feel the stigma of being seen as barbaric and other high-contact sports may soon go the same way.


  1. left0ver1under says

    One thing overlooked in the discussions, lawsuits and payouts over concussions is when the players played and how big they were. The majority of the ones suing now played in the 1980s or earlier, at a time when the largest players – offensive and defensive linemen – averaged around 250 pounds (120kg) per man. Since the 1990s, the trend has been to have 300 pound linemen (140kg). Junior Seau was a likebacker, about 250 pounds, and his mental damage drove him to suicide. Just imagine how many more cases of dementia, violence and suicide will be exposed in the next 20 years.

    And this isn’t a new story, it’s been discussed for a decade, but only now are the NFL and other leagues willing to discuss it – because there are finally consequences for those running the leagues. The biggest consequence the NFL will face someday is an empty talent pool. Parents and legislators are eventually going to demand safety for their kids or else quit or ban the game altogether.

    Hockey and rugby do have a lot of concussions, but there are rules to try and limit them. The NHL and other leagues have cracked down on hits away from the play, and rugby is changing its rules on scrums to reduce head-to-head and head-to-body collisions. Both have a rule which football lacks but may be adopted: only the person with the puck or ball can be hit. And hockey has a “no contact” rule for young kids. Some organizations are talking about a total ban on hits until age 14.

    Boxing already has started to feel the stigma of being seen as barbaric and other high-contact sports may soon go the same way.

    Some high-contact sports are losing popularity, but not all. “Mixed martial arts” and “ultimate fighting” have growing audiences, and the risk of injury and death is greater in those “sports” than boxing. Just witness the knockout (read: attempt to commit murder) at 0:50 to 1:00. The man on the bottom was lucky to survive, not die from the back of his skull fracturing.

  2. colnago80 says

    Nah, there’s too much money involved in football, both at the professional level and the college level. Football is not only the highest watched sport on TV it is also the source of billions of dollars waged in gambling. Not going to happen.

  3. lamacher says

    The dangers of impact concussion have been known for decades, studied and documented for at least 20 years. Despite the NFL’s resolute denial of the results of repeated concussion, shown by Eisenberg and his neuropsychologist collaborator at the U of Texas, Medical Branch, and published well before 2000, this travesty persists. But, as more and more neuropathological evidence and confirmation piles up re the reality and fatal nature of Traumatic Encephalopathy, corporate monsters like the NFL, NHL, WBA will meet their doom. ESPN should hang its head in shame.

  4. rhebel says

    Not much will change. Especially for those stuck in a cycle of generational poverty. Why would you not risk your life being shortened if it meant your children and on would reap the benefits of your wealth? Sure, most that suffer long term consequences will never make it to that level, but? It is the risk your life lottery.

  5. says

    The rest of the world seems pretty keen on what, with shades of McCarthy, I kind of want to call Un-American Football (because almost no one outside the USA calls it ‘soccer’). I’m not a fan, but it looks a lot safer, being (at least nominally) non-contact, and if everyone else seems to rate it highly, it shouldn’t be too much to expect the USA to take it to heart too, with the right promotional campaigns. That way, you’d get less concussion, and everyone else would get to use the word ‘football’ again without having to qualify it. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

  6. says

    Although I should add that even that has some concussion risk, from hitting the ball with your head, that it would be worth trying to phase out.

  7. Mano Singham says

    Yes, if they can outlaw the use of the hands, they could do it with the head too. It would change the game somewhat but not drastically.

  8. Mano Singham says

    It is safer. The biggest danger is with broken bones from collisions going for the ball but at least those can heal and are not life threatening.

  9. Thinker says

    Where I live, football practice for the pee-wees (5 years old) on up through high school has been going strong for a month. We’ve got outrageous heat and humidity, and parents see absolutely nothing wrong with loading their 5-year-old down with 20 pounds of protective gear and making them run and hit for two hours a day. Yeah, can’t see how that could possibly be dangerous, can you?

  10. says

    technically (I’ve been a player for 40 years, and a referee for 12), the risk is not when head hits ball, but when ball hits head.

    Properly trained, a player braces their neck muscles, making the head kinetically a solid unit with the neck and shoulders, which greatly reduces the risk of hard impact (spread equal momentum over greater mass).

    The problems come in two areas: one, players knocking heads while going up for the ball, which does happen, and is a serious problem. Two, being hit in the head by the ball unexpectedly or without good technique, thus having the ball act only on the head and not on the whole upper fifth. The rules can’t really do much about the latter; I would think it won’t be long before there will be sanctions for knocking heads, as it’s often something at least one of the players could have done something about.

    There’s a third, but much less frequent problem, when a goalkeeper goes up for a high ball and elects to punch it away. I’ve done that, and found a reckless player come flying in leading with their head, and promptly (and unintentionally) punched them hard in the head.

    As far as sports that allow at least some contact, it’s a relatively safe sport for heads. I would like to see headgear worn by more players, especially recreational players: this sort of thing, which might help reduce the incidence and seriousness of collisions of all the above-noted types. Eventually, like the NHL and MLB, they will adopt headgear, and clubs will start making their very, very valuable assets (the players) be more protected, whether they like it or not.

  11. left0ver1under says

    People who shake babies or leave them in hot cars will face criminal charges of child endangerment.

    Meanwhile, people who expose children to shaking and excessive heat on a football field are called “good” or “involved” parents.

    I don’t see any difference when it comes to the danger the children face. The only difference is that those watching football are being entertained with no risk to themselves.

  12. says

    I’ve personally had issues with #1 and #2, and received a concussion from #2. It wasn’t so much unexpected so much as I was goalkeeping, but the shot was taken at such close range, I could not get my hands up in time.

    And as a goalkeeper, I’ll add a 4th, which is going down to the ground for the ball and getting kicked in the face.

    As an aside, I think the NHL has a bit of work to do yet with their headgear, primarily for protecting teeth, though that’s not as critical as protecting the brain.

  13. says

    Yeah, I’ve had one like that too – I was diving sideways for a ball that someone was trying to kick, and got the knee to the head. Bell rung pretty hard, came out of net, instituted basic possible-concussion practices, and made sure I told my doc the next time I saw her. As a ref, I also made a point of stopping for an indirect on “dangerous play” when a player ducks into a header – you know the kind, where you think it’s coming high, but it drops more than you thought, and as you chase it down, you realize your head is now about perfect kicking height. Scary.

    My worst was playing hockey in university, when I hopped over the boards, stumbled slightly, so my head was about waist high, just as someone coming the other direction skated into me. THAT one, I missed some games over.

    Still, as noted, hockey’s put in a fair bit of effort to control serious injury incurred during play, by putting a lot of emphasis with refs on unsafe play. I’d like to see footy get the same focus.

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