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PBS Frontline episode about dementia and football: Are the brain damage risks too high?

Published: Thursday, Oct. 10 2013 12:25 p.m. MDT

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie lies motionless after being hit in the second quarter of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Indianapolis on Dec. 19, 2010. Collie later walked off the field. (AJ Mast, Associated Press) Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie lies motionless after being hit in the second quarter of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Indianapolis on Dec. 19, 2010. Collie later walked off the field. (AJ Mast, Associated Press)

After watching the PBS Frontline documentary “League of Denial” or reading the book by the same title, tossing around the old pigskin may not have the same nostalgic or innocent feeling it once had. The show, which aired Tuesday evening, questioned the safety of the most popular sport in America and looked at how the game can lead to a chronic brain disease.

“‘League of Denial’ reveals how the NFL, over a period of nearly two decades, sought to cover up and deny mounting evidence of the connection between football and brain damage,” the book summary reads on Amazon.com. “Everyone knew that football is violent and dangerous. But what the players who built the NFL into a $10 billion industry didn’t know – and what the league sought to shield from them – is that no amount of padding could protect the human brain from the force generated by modern football; that the very essence of the game could be exposing these players to brain damage.”

ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru wrote the book, exploring what happens to the NFL players who suffer from numerous concussions during their football career.

“These players come down with dementia and then alzheimer’s, and then they’re gone,” said Harry Carson, a former linebacker for the New York Giants, in the show’s trailer.

While most agree that football has always been a dangerous sport, some say the data concerning concussions should steer parents away from allowing their children to play football.

“Can a child consent to playing tackle football? Well maybe they can in their backyard but not in any sanctioned league. A parent or legal guardian must sign a release form to allow them to play. But this is true of any interscholastic or organized youth sport. So why am I making a big deal out of this? Because parents can feel confident that participating in interscholastic or youth sports are likely to be beneficial for their children and have an extremely low likelihood of posing any long-term health risks to their child,” wrote Dr. Andrew Blecher in his article “The High School and Youth Game of Football” that appeared in the Concussion Litigation Reporter. “But is this true about tackle football as well? Honestly, I believe the medical and scientific community is starting to question it.”

Some who saw the documentary said the information has made them more cautious of watching football, and especially the NFL, in the future.

“I have been a NFL fan and season ticket holder for 46 years, and played as a youth through high school and coached kids,” said Gary Blum, a commenter on the Frontline Facebook page. “This report has opened up my eyes, and my thinking, and I will definitely look at football differently now — especially youth football. Change will be slow for the masses, but it will and should come.”

Other say the greatest fault does not fall on the NFL; rather, several people and factors contribute to the medical issues.

“There is a mix of blame here,” said 5yrup, a commenter about the Frontline show on The Verge.com. “The players are responsible for hiding any health issues they have had, you can’t blame the NFL for that. The NFL/teams are responsible for denying health care-related issues to the jobs they are hiring people for. However it's still up to the players to demand these things from the league. When you work a high-risk job, you deserve proper compensation to handle the medical issues that could come with the job.”

Abby Stevens is a writer for the DeseretNews.com Faith and Family sections. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University–Idaho. Contact Abby at astevens@deseretdigital.com.

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