The most troubling and discouraging aspect of brain injuries in the NFL is this: There is nothing that can be done to prevent them without radically changing the game.
The league has its back to the wall and something drastic would seem to be in order, but it's doubtful that league officials have the guts to do it and risk killing the golden goose.
The brain-injury problem has been ignored or glossed over for decades. Only in recent years has it grabbed the attention of the league, fans, coaches and players, and then only because the problem keeps grabbing dramatic headlines.
As if to put exclamation points on the issue, two players have died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the chest in the last 15 months — Dave Duerson and Junior Seau. Duerson sent a text message to his family stating that he wanted his brain to be used for research at the Boston University of School of Medicine, which was studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head and often associated with boxers.
Studies confirmed he had CTE. Seau's brain also will be studied and many expect that he suffered from CTE, as well.
The case against the NFL and the football culture in general is building like a tidal wave. On May 3, the day after Seau's death, more than 100 players filed a lawsuit against the NFL claiming the league didn't protect its players from concussions.
Last August, former BYU and Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon was part of another group that sued the NFL for training players to hit with their heads, concealing a link between brain injuries and football and failing to treat them for concussions. McMahon says he continued to play with five concussions and now walks around "in a daze" and suffers memory lapses.
Drawing more attention to the problem, Hall of Famer John Mackey died at 69 last summer after suffering for years from dementia, which required him to live in a full-time assisted living center.
The lawsuits and the death of Seau arrived just as the New Orleans Saints' bounty program was raging in the news, drawing suspensions and fines from the league for the team's practice of offering money to players who injured their opponents.
The NFL asked for all of its current problems. This is how ignorant and slow to take the head-injury epidemic seriously the NFL has been: Only a few months ago, the league was pushing the players association to turn a 16-game season into 18 games.
Who's running this show, Bud Selig?
It was a sign of the NFL's desperation that the league held a concussion conference in December 2010 that focused much of its attention on new helmet technology as a way to prevent brain injuries. At the time, I wrote that it was an utter waste of time, a fact confirmed by Dr. Russ Toronto, a Salt Lake sports medicine doctor, and Drs. Jim Snyder and Brent Rich, who have a concussion clinic in Provo.
Helmets prevent broken noses and lacerated scalps, but not concussions. Snyder and Rich offered an object lesson: If you shake an egg back and forth, the yoke inside breaks and scrambles. If you put a helmet on the egg and shake the egg, the result would be the same. There is nothing to prevent the yoke — or brain — from bouncing against the sides of its container.
The only relevant helmet issue is banning players from leading with their heads when making tackles, which has already been implemented and resulted in many large fines.
Where does all this leave the league?
Some observers think the brain-injury problem will doom the league and relegate it to the periphery of popular sports, like boxing.
That is unlikely, but the NFL does need to take a hard look at issues it would rather leave alone. When it comes to player safety, the game has been a work in progress for decades and it's still a work in progress.
As columnist Rick Reilly noted a couple of years ago, the league has been figuring this thing out one step at a time. In 1956, the NFL banned facemask tackles; in the 1960s, it banned clothesline tackles; in 1977, it banned the head slap; in the 1970s, it banned blocks below the waist; in 1979, a play was blown dead when the quarterback was in the grasp of an opponent; in 1999, clipping was banned everywhere on the field; in 2006, it banned horse-collar tackles.
He could have added more recent developments such as hitting defenseless players, hitting players away from a play, helmet-to-helmet hits, and so forth.
More drastic changes should be considered, but I don't believe they will be. No one will take this seriously, but in a column last year I suggested a weight limit. I also advocate — and this relates to the weight limit — getting serious about steroids. One observer called the NFL's drug efforts "the equivalent of our efforts to keep illegals from coming across the border. It's a show, and little more."
NFL players — and I believe many of them artificially inflated by steroids — are abnormally large men who are still as fast and athletic as small men. To make matters worse, they play their games on carpet, which makes the game faster and more brutal. Force = Mass x Acceleration.
The NFL thinks it's serious about the steroid issue; it's not. If the league wants to know what serious is, it should study the way track and field punishes those who are busted for performance-enhancing drugs. It's naive to think that football players — the athletes who have the most to gain from steroids — aren't using steroids at least as much as baseball players, track athletes and cyclists, yet it doesn't produce nearly the same number of positive tests and scandals.2 comments on this story
A weight limit would reduce the size of the collisions on the field. It also would address another problem — the increased size of NFL players has created an epidemic of weight-related coronary disease and obesity, which undoubtedly contribute to their shortened lifespan. The Associated Press reported the increase in 300-pound NFL players — one in 1970, three in 1980, 94 in 1990, 301 in 2000 and 394 in 2009.
The league needs to study the effects of weight limits, but it won't. Not even deaths and an epidemic of concussions and dementia will be enough impetus for such dramatic change.