The Professor’s Complete Series On Head Injuries In Football

Updated: April 7, 2015
Head Injuries


I recently watched a PBS Frontline program on the NFL’s concussion crisis called League of Denial, written by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.  The program traced the decade-long effort by the NFL to discredit scientific research that pointed to a likely connection between repeated head collisions in football and permanent brain damage.  Watching the documentary made me so mad I almost threw my remote at the TV screen.  Part of my reaction was outrage at the NFL’s despicable behavior and part was personal.  One of the former players who suffered neurological damage was Ralph Wenzel, a fraternity brother and friend of mine from San Diego State in the early 1960’s.  Wenzel died at age 59 after suffering from Alzheimer’s.

The NFL’s history of denials, evasions, lies and duplicity in the face of mounting scientific evidence of the dangers of repeated football collisions amounts to nothing less than criminal negligence.  I say this because evidence seems to point to the fact that the NFL knew about the long-term dangers of concussions long before it acknowledged the problem and it didn’t inform the players.  Worse yet, it published its own “scientific” papers claiming there was no evidence of a connection between concussions and brain damage.

The NFL’s negligence exposes how much the league prioritizes private profit over the health and safety of players who have gone to war on the football fields. This shouldn’t be a big surprise; protecting the bottom line is instinctive for profit-seeking corporations.  If faced with possible financial damages arising from a practice or product, the natural impulse is to challenge the evidence supporting the damage claim. To do this they often hire their own scientific “experts” to undermine the honest science in the public mind.  Friendly scientists are always available—for a price.  If you have sufficient financial resources, it’s pretty easy to raise enough doubt to scuttle or weaken a potential lawsuit.

Witness what the tobacco industry was able to accomplish in the 1950s and 1960s. Deploying their own in-house “scientists” they were able to obfuscate the cancer-causing nature of smoking for nearly two decades.  Sowing a little doubt, a Brown and Williamson memo declared decades ago, “is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.”  Fostering doubt is now standard practice throughout corporate America.  It is currently being effectively deployed by oil, gas and coal interests to raise doubt about the validity of climate science.

The NFL began to hear about a possible link between head collisions and long-term brain damage in the early 1990s.  After Troy Aikman’s much-publicized concussion in 1994, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue created a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee to “study” the problem.  A serious investigation, however, was not on the money-conscious NFL’s mind, evidenced by its appointment of Dr. Elliot Pellman, a New York rheumatologist with no previous experience in brain science, as its chair.  Tagliabue left little doubt how the NFL viewed the problem when he told Sports Illustrated that “concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk.”  He later dismissed reports of long-term brain damage as “one of those ‘pack-journalism’ things.”

Paul tagliabue

In 1995 super-agent Leigh Steinberg went public with his concerns about concussion injuries received by two of his biggest clients, Aikman and Steve Young.  He convened a seminar on the effects of concussions attended by players who listened to a panel of medical experts.  Player curiosity increased when the American Academy of Neurology publicized results of research indicating that concussions could have serious neurological consequences, including problems with memory and concentration, confusion, speech and hearing difficulties, and severe headaches.

Curiosity and speculation became more focused when forensic pathologist and Allegheny Court Medical Examiner, Dr. Bennet Omalu, autopsied the body of former Pittsburgh Steeler lineman Mike Webster, who died at age 50 in 2002.  Webster’s physical and mental health had steadily declined since his retirement from football.  He often appeared confused, couldn’t remember familiar things, and had frequent headaches and bouts of rage. His family said they didn’t recognize the person he had become.  Webster eventually divorces, slipped into dementia, and was living in his pickup truck when he died.

Dr. Omalu found that 17-years of football and post-retirement abuse had taken a very heavy toll on Webster’s body, as one might expect, but his brain at first glance appeared relatively normal.  Taking a closer look with a microscope, he found evidence of severe damage.  Omalu said it looked like a brain of “people with Alzheimer’s or someone who had suffered a severe head wound.”

Omalu identified the brain disease causing the behavioral change as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive neurological disease that leaves evidence in the brain.  CTE chokes off brain cells, causing, among other things, memory loss, agitation, anger, irritability, instability, and sleeplessness. It can lead to dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even Lou Gehrig Disease. He reasoned CTE could only have been caused by blows to the head.  Although CTE had been found in former boxers, this was the first evidence of brain disease in football players.  Omalu published his findings in the journal Neurosurgery. His discovery started a chain of events that would shake the NFL to its very foundation.

With visions of floodgates opening for class-action lawsuits from former players and their families dancing in its head, the NFL swung into action with a two-pronged strategy:  attack science and scientists that contended head collisions caused permanent brain damage, which it hoped would discourage further research, and create its own body of contrary scientific evidence to send a message that concussions and repeated head collisions are not a problem in the NFL.

The NFL launched a vicious personal attack on Dr. Omalu claiming he had “misrepresented the facts” and drew “preposterous” conclusions. It demanded that Neurosurgery retract the article (which it refused to do). In October 2003, the MTBI committee published the first of 16 papers in Neurosurgery denying a connection between head injuries and later life problems.  The paper was published despite objection from Dr. Robert Kantu, editor of the journal’s sports medicine section, who questioned its science, but he was overruled by editor-in-chief, Dr. Michael Upuso, who also served as a consultant to the NY Giants football team.

Early MTBI papers stated that players could quickly return to play—even in the same game—and not have to worry that the injury would worsen or be chronically cumulative.  In November 2004, it had the audacity to suggest that because of a “winnowing process” NFL players are actually less susceptible to post-concussion syndrome brain injuries than the general population.

The next several years witnessed a running battle between new evidence of CTE in former player brains and repeated MTBI contrary claims.  Dr. Omalu published a second paper in Neurosurgery in November of 2006 after finding disease in the brain of other former players, including Steeler Terry Long, who had committed suicide.  Omalu reported that both Long and Webster had Major Depression Disorder after retirement despite not having a history of recorded concussions.  This suggested that an goodellaccumulation of sub-concussive hits could also be dangerous.

Commissioner Tagliabue retired in 2006 and was replaced by Roger Goodell, a good man to carry on the denial fight since he had previously served as chief operating officer for the MTBI when it sent those controversial papers to Neurosurgery.  The new commissioner proved as good at obfuscation as his predecessor, telling Americans that the alleged scientific evidence of brain disease and concern over head injuries was overblown.  He denied there was any connection to head trauma, dementia, or Alzheimer’s.  Goodell assured the public the league’s own six-year study proved things were “well under control.”

Although questions remained about the extent and prevalence of CTE, and definitive proof that its cause was repeated head collisions, an increasing number of case studies were confirming the presence of brain disease in deceased players who displayed Major Depression Disorder after their careers were over.  Most of the research was being undertaken at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, headed by Dr. Ann McKee.  McKee received an increasing supply of brains from wives and families of deceased players who, like Webster, had displayed neurological and behavioral changes after retiring from football.

Like Dr. Omalu, Dr. McKee’s research was attacked by the NFL. It repeated its doubts that head injuries were the cause of such changes, arguing that they could just as likely be a result of steroids, substance abuse, alcohol, or countless other things.  McKee, however, proved a much more persistent and formidable adversary.  At the 2009 Super Bowl, for example, McKee exploited the mega-media opportunity to hold a press conference where she announced several more cases of CTE.  At that time 45 of 46 brains the center analyzed showed evidence of the disease.

Despite its denials, the NFL was not unaware of the brain injury problem.  It funded an internal study in 2009 that concluded that former players were 19 times more likely to get dementia, Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases than the general public.  This finding contradicted its frequently expressed contention that the problem was overblown.

To the NFL’s great displeasure, the report was leaked to New York Times reporter Alan Schwartz, who wrote an article highlighting its major findings.  When Schwartz contacted Goodell for a comment, the commissioner denied his own report. Despite repeated denials, the NFL knew it had a problem.

Still trying to get an NFL admission that head collisions might cause permanent brain damage, Schwartz contacted league spokesman Greg Aiello for a comment on the report.  During their conversation Aiello admitted it was clear there was a connection.  Here was the NFL’s designated spokesman contradicting his own commissioner.  Aiello’s admission was the first time anyone associated with the league had made such an admission.  The New York Times published the admission the next day.  Publicity forced the NFL to finally publicly admit the prevalence of post-careers brain disorders.

With this admission, more CTE findings, and heavy pressure on the NFL to do something, the league was forced to end its denial strategy and move to damage limitation,  It’s response will be addressed in Part II.




After more than a decade of denials and evasions of the problem, the NFL was finally forced to admit that concussions could have long-term effects. It didn’t concede easily. It took increased scientific confirmation of the presence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), wider public awareness, and political pressure brought to Capitol Hill by Dr. Ann McKee, director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (Jane Leavy has authored a book about her titled The Woman Who Saved Football) and an organization of wives and widows of former players to get the NFL to respond. Commissioner Roger Goodell was hauled before a congressional hearing where he was asked point blank if concussions caused long-term damage. This time his familiar “don’t-ask-me-I’m-not-a-scientist-ask-them” refrain satisfied no one. One committee member equated his evasion to Big Tobacco.

owen thomas

Owen Thomas

Two new discoveries by Dr. McKee’s research team posed an even more ominous threat to the NFL and the game of football in general. CTE deposits were found in the brains of a 21-year old college football player, Owen Thomas, who had committed suicide, and an 18-year old high school player who died after a fourth concussion. Finding the presence of CTE in players so young raised several questions that cut to the very heart of the game of football. Could asymptomatic, sub-concussive hits have long-term effects? Is playing the game too dangerous? How safe is it for children to play? At what age? What precautions can be taken to protect players from head injuries? Questions like these substantially raised the stakes for the NFL.

The painstaking uncovering of evidence of lasting brain damage from football head collisions, including in young players, finally overwhelmed the NFL’s increasingly weak denial arguments. The league had little choice but to move from denial to damage control. It finally acknowledged there was a problem and in 2009 began to institute modest changes to the rules under which the game is played. The NFL:

  • Replaced MTBI committee members, who had been steadfast in denying long-term damage, with prominent neuroscience experts (2009).
  • Instituted stricter return-to-play guidelines (2009).
  • Gave $1 million to Boston University’s brain research center, making it its “preferred” brain bank (2010).
  • Made a commitment that the league would cooperate with families to provide brains from former players (2010). (But not necessarily to Boston University. The NFL steered the brain of Junior Seau to the National Institute of Health (NIH) where it expected a less hostile reception.)
  • Produced a poster to be hung in locker rooms warning that “concussions and conditions resulting from repeated brain injury can change your life and your family’s life forever.”
  • Gave $30 million to the NIH for brain research (2010).
  • Moved kick-offs to the 35-yard line in the hope of reducing the speed of collisions (2011).
  • Funded “Heads Up Football,” a youth concussion awareness program (2012).
  • Banned “crown of the helmet” hits outside the tackle zone (2013).

In a November 2012 speech at the Harvard School of Public Health, Goodell boasted of the league’s focus on making the game safer, but also pointed out there were still unanswered questions when it comes to the long-term effects of concussions. It appeared the NFL remained wedded to its strategy of sowing doubt. Its legal troubles, however, were just beginning.

Jason Luckasevic, a young Pittsburgh attorney, first learned about CTE from his older brother who had worked under forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu at the Allegheny County medical-examiner’s office (see previous essay: Head Injuries in Football: the NFL Fumbles). In 2011 he filed a lawsuit against the NFL on behalf of 75 former players charging that the league was involved in “a scheme of fraud and deceit” for its failure to warn players of the dangers of head collisions. This started a series of legal challenges to the NFL.

The NFL Players Association launched its own fight against the NFL. It allocated funds to study the health problems that afflict current and former players and in August of 2011 filed a lawsuit on behalf of 4500 retired players and their beneficiaries, a third of whom claimed the NFL had fraudulently concealed the danger to their brains. Faced with this broad legal challenge, the NFL decided damage limitation logic required that it negotiate a settlement of the lawsuit.

In 2013 the litigants agreed to a $765 million settlement, though, significantly, the NFL did not have to admit guilt. In light of the NFL’s annual revenues of over $9 billion, and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s stated goal that revenues would increase to $25 billion by 2027, this is a ridiculously meager amount.

nfl concussion settlement

It is unfortunate a trial did not take place because evidence would have been revealed as to what the NFL knew and when they knew it. This would have shed light on the question of criminal negligence. I don’t expect anyone would have gone to jail—that simply does not happen to officials in big corporations– but equipped with such evidence, it’s likely a judge would have granted a far larger settlement.

In 2014 U.S. district Judge Anita Brody rejected the original settlement saying she did not believe the $675 million set aside for damages would be enough to cover payments to all players who qualified for assistance. After the NFL removed the cap on damages, the judge granted preliminary approval.

Removal of the cap, however, may not prove all that significant. Because the settlement delineates the amount of financial compensation to be paid out for various CTE afflictions—e.g., early dementia, moderate dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease, and death—unless many players opt out of the agreement and pursue their own individual claims against the league, it is estimated the NFL’s total liability will not likely exceed $1 billion. Goodell’s annual salary alone is nearly nine times greater than the $5 million maximum payout for Lou Gehrig’s disease, the most severe delineated brain-damage affliction. A hearing on the final settlement is scheduled for November.

In its long history of denials and evasions, the NFL demonstrated its obvious prioritization of money over truth and the health and safety of its players. In doing so, it has placed hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of players at risk of permanent brain damage. Now every time I see a big head hit, I wonder what it might lead to later in the player’s life. I look at former players who had concussions and wonder. Steve Young looks OK now, but will symptoms of CTE start showing?

Perhaps worst of all, the NFLs obstruction of scientific research has delayed discovery of a possible definitive connection between sub-concussive hits and brain disease. If such a connection is found, it will be vitally important information for parents to know when considering the risks of letting their children play football.

However extensive the scientific evidence of the prevalence of CTE (it has now been found in 76 of 79 deceased players—96%), and the number of brain injuries in young players, it is unlikely that risk will be significantly mitigated out of the game, even if it were technically possible. Some states have gone further than the NFL in attempting to protect young players. California, for example, recently passed a law that limits full-contact practices for middle and high-school teams to no more than three-hours a week during the season and prohibits contact during the off-season. This is likely as far as things will go. Few Americans would want to see the sport revert back to some version of flag or touch football.


Football is a brutal and violent sport, which explains much of its appeal to the American public. Love of the “big hit,” replayed countless times on TV and social media is widely celebrated. For many, it’s more appealing that a great run or touchdown catch. Since the recent rule changes, complaints have been widespread, including from some former players and broadcasters, that the game has been softened too much.
NFL rule changes are not likely to mitigate concussions. In fact, despite the various changes designed to reduce them, the 2012 season saw a 14% rise. It appears the NFL, colleges and high schools, and the football-watching public, are willing to live with a continued risk of head injuries. They say risk is part of the game.

But circumstances could change. Could health insurers find it too risky to insure football players like they did for smokers? Could young athletes turn away from the game for fear of damaging their brains? Could stiff regulations lessen interest in the game as tobacco regulations did for smoking? Could excessive brutality turn off spectators like occurred in boxing? Whatever the future, the game of football appears to be at a crossroads. The NFL needs to get its head out of the sand.




Is there a connection between the brutality of football, and particularly head injuries, and the prevalence of player’s committing violence against women? At this point, we can only speculate. One thing is certain, however, the NFL has a vested interest in avoiding the subject. Given its shameful and probably criminal denial that concussions could leave permanent brain damage, and its tardy, insensitive, inconsistent and patronizing response to the issue of player domestic violence, it is extremely doubtful the league will launch a serious investigation of a possible connection between head injuries and acts of domestic violence—at least as long as the revenue-driven, denial artist Roger Goodell remains commissioner.

A possible link between the brutality of football and acts of domestic violence deserves immediate scientific and medical attention, far more than it is currently being given. Some think this neglect is because it is a difficult subject to study. A multitude of factors could contribute to domestic violence, including stress, anger, and substance abuse– things related to the presence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)– but also family history, genetics, and the machismo culture of football, making it difficult to isolate cause and effect. This complexity, however, is not mainly why there has been relatively little scientific interest in the issue. No individual or organization has stepped forward to provide funding for research. To this point, there has been little media attention and abuse victim advocacy groups have not warmed to the subject.

nfl machismo

Incognito: NFL Machismo Personified

Investigative journalism and coverage in the mass media kindled scientific interest in studying football brain injuries and also expanded public awareness of the problem. This ultimately led the NFL to institute changes to mitigate head injuries. Unfortunately there currently appears to be little media interest in whether brain injuries could be a bridge between violence on the football field and violent attacks against women. (One exception is sports journalist David Zirin who has been following the story, and from whom I drew ideas for this essay.) At Roger Goodell’s now infamous press conference about player domestic violence, no journalist asked him whether the league would investigate whether such violence might be linked to brain injuries. This lack of curiosity is similar to the situation before Dr. Bennet Omalu published his first paper on concussions causing permanent brain damage (See previous post, Head Injuries in Football: The NFL Fumbles).

One might think that domestic violence advocates would command center stage in calling for research on whether head hits in football might be connected to domestic violence, but this has also not been the case. Partner abuse is a common phenomenon in America, occurring throughout all class, demographic, racial and ethnic groups where head injuries are not common. Many domestic abuse victim advocates worry that that singling out post-concussive syndrome as a causal link to abuse excuses personal responsibility in committing acts of violence. The problem, many argue, doesn’t stem from a form of insanity in which perpetrators are not responsible for their actions; rather, it reflects a pattern of behavior inherent in our machismo culture. They maintain abuse is a matter of choice made more likely by cultural dispositions. Accordingly victim advocates have resisted focusing the discourse on head injuries.

Indifference from the NFL, the media, and victim’s advocates notwithstanding, the high incidence of domestic violence committed by NFL players suggests this is not mere coincidence. Common sense says that both the macho culture of football and the presence of CTE are connected to a higher incidence of acts of violence away from the playing field. Football is such a highly stressful and brutal sport, it makes sense that many players find it difficult turning off the violence when the game is over. This is something many players have simply not learned how to manage.


AP Has Taken Big Hits and Likes to Dole Them Out Too

Most NFL players in their years of playing football, stretching back to high school and college, operated in an insulated world of entitlement which allowed them to follow a different set of rules than the average person. Sheltered and protected by parents, coaches, administrators, and agents, many have not had to face the consequences of bad choices, including acts of violence. When indiscretions are repeatedly covered up, it is understandable why NFL players might feel less inclined to worry about sanctions that might result from a criminal or abusive action. They might thus be less deterred by red light signals that stop the rest of us.

With regard to brain damage from head collisions, there is abundant evidence that one of the behavioral manifestations of post-concussive brain disorder is a tendency to become easily frustrated and quick to anger, accompanied by fits of rage and violence. Wife and partner beatings were common among retired players whose autopsies revealed the presence of CTE. Many had been arrested for domestic violence.

But what has this to do with current players? Possibly a great deal. In citing a disturbing report that “3 in 10 NFL players suffer from at least moderate brain disease,” Dan Diamond wrote in Forbes that this might help explain the prevalence of domestic violence. He suspects that repeated head trauma lowers a person’s self control, making the person do things he would not otherwise do. Interviews with wives of former and current players has led David Zirin to a similar suspicion.

Zirin quotes Matt Chaney, author of Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, as telling him he believes “football brain injuries lead many players to violence they wouldn’t otherwise have committed, ranging from domestic cases to random acts…. I think brain injuries, after studying the topic as we all have in recent years, now explains much about the perplexing cases of violence and other irrational behavior among football players I’ve known.”

This of course does not prove there is in fact a causal link between concussions and domestic violence, but it does raise enough suspicion to warrant further scientific inquiry. There’s a great deal at stake having to do with how the game of football is played, how families weigh the decision to allow their children to play football, and how women in relationships with players are treated. It also raises serious questions about the mysteries of CTE, how it might be lessened, or if anything can be done before abuse takes place.

These questions are critically important. It is unfortunate the NFL does not seem to agree and will likely turn a blind eye to a domestic violencepossible connection between brain disease, domestic violence and sexual assault. Worse yet, if scientific evidence surfaces pointing to a connection, the league will likely take action to counter and discredit the evidence, as it did with research on the long-term effects of concussions.

Expect the league to step up penalties for player domestic abuse (like it did for Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson), preach piously about its proactive actions, and morally pontificate, but words and punishment alone will not solve the problem. Nor will the NFL Player Association’s howling at Commissioner Goodell’s autocratic and heavy-handed approach. Both sides need to sit down and come up with ways to mitigate the violent football culture and educate and rehabilitate, rather than simply punish, players who commit acts of violence off the field. Until then, we can expect repeated stories of women and children being battered by football players. Given the current nature of the game and ever-watchful eye of internet and social media, this is almost a certainty.




In previous posts I wrote about lawsuits filed by pro and college football players against their leagues and associations for brain injuries incurred as a result of head collisions. The reach has now been extended to the high school level.   A former high school quarterback is suing the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) for not doing enough to protect players from concussions. This is the first case where legal action has been taken for former high school players as a whole against a group responsible for prep sports in a state. As injuries and lawsuits mount, perhaps football associations and leagues will finally get serious about changing the one thing likely to make the game safer: the way tackles are made.ihsa

The lead plaintiff is Daniel Bukal, a star quarterback until 2003 at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, a Chicago suburb. According to the 51-page suit, Bukal received multiple concussions and still suffers frequent migraines and some memory loss. Like most states, Illinois didn’t have any concussion protocols in place when Bukal played, and, according to the suit, current protocols remain deficient. The class-action lawsuit is asking the IHSA to strengthen rules regarding what it says is “an epidemic” of head injuries at the 800 high schools it overseas. It is not seeking specific monetary damages.

Such litigation may be only the beginning, as similar lawsuits targeting high school associations in other states are pending. It’s probably just a matter of time until before lawsuits emerge for youth leagues. The point to stress here is that there is growing awareness of the serious risks of playing the game of football, risks that organized football has not been adequately managing.

This isn’t to suggest that lawsuits alone will lead to significant changes in how the game is played. So far monetary penalties have not proven effective in compelling change. Concussion protocols have been instituted, but it appears incidences of brain and spinal cord injuries have not declined. Heads continue to be used as a weapon in making tackles. Ironically, improvement in helmet technology, making them safer hence giving players a false sense of security, has actually encouraged their use as a hard-hit mechanism. Along with modern faceguards, which protrude out several inches, head-gear has become a formidable weapon. Young football players watch highlights of crushing head hits and ask, why not?


Progression of Pro Football Helmets Over the Years

Teams at all levels of football have been remiss in not teaching players how to tackle without using their heads. Big head hits have become part of the culture of modern football. It wasn’t always this way. Look at films of football games decades ago, when players wore flimsy leather helmets, and you’ll notice how differently tackles were made. Hands and bodies were used and players targeted the chest. Head hit injuries were rare. Now many players lead with the head.  Also, look at rugby, a physical contact sport where players don’t wear helmets; the result: virtually no head injuries.

What needs to change is the culture of football. Players must be taught how to make tackles by driving through the chest. Crown of helmet hits must be more severely penalized—including the possibility of suspension from the game or games, and possibly even from the league for repeated offenders. The current NFL fine system of $21,000 for a first helmet hit offense and $42,000 for a second is a joke. Stiffen penalties and players will get the message. New head hit rules in the NFL are already leading some players to make adjustments to their games.

Transforming the technique of tackling must be accorded a high priority at all levels of the game. This is a far better approach to protecting players than concussion protocols (though these are important), developing safer helmets, or fining millionaire players for particularly egregious helmet hits.

Such a change will not lessen the appeal of the game for fans that love big hits. It will not soften the game, as many fans, broadcasters, and present and former players lament. Big hits will still happen, only without leading with the head. One would think that players would welcome such a change. After all, a head or spinal cord injury can shorten a player’s career, costing millions of potential dollars and possibly even a life. What player doesn’t want a lengthy career and a healthy post-career life?

I’m not sure what it will take to get leagues to take the head injury problem seriously enough to institute significant changes to the football culture. More evidence of post-concussive brain disease, successful lawsuits, reluctant insurers, publicized congressional hearings, public outrage, and, most importantly, a player revolt would seem necessary conditions to force change. Whether they’d be sufficient is another matter. Football associations are notoriously conservative. Resolving the head collision problem is a moral obligation. I think leagues and players will eventually find it a financial one as well.




In my last post on the issue of head injuries in football (Changing the Culture of Football), I wrote about a class-action lawsuit filed by parents of an Illinois high school football player whose son still suffers from frequent migraines and memory loss after multiple concussions received while playing football. The suit cites the State of Illinois for deficient concussion protocols. In asking the Illinois State High School Association to strengthen rules regarding head injuries, it also strives to warn parents about letting their children play football at a young age.

Noting that similar lawsuits targeting high school associations are pending, I predicted that “It’s probably just a matter of time before lawsuits emerge for youth leagues.” There now appears some evidence to support this possibility.

According to a study recently published in Neurology, NFL veterans who started playing tackle football before the age of 12 are more likely to have cognitive difficulties after their careers.

concussion head

Researchers tested 42 former players on their short-term memory, mental flexibility and problem-solving skills and found those who took up the sport before they were 12-years old functioned about 20% worse than those who didn’t. Both groups scored below average on many of the tests.

There appears a scientific explanation for this significant finding. A known period of critical brain development occurs around puberty. A brain is injured during that time may have both-short term and long-term consequences. According to Robert Stern of the Boston University School of Medicine, “this study supports the idea that we need to protect the brains of our children while they’re going through this dramatic development period.”

The point to once again stress is that there is growing evidence that playing football at a young age carries serious risks that organized leagues at all levels are not adequately managing. Parents should carefully weigh the evidence and fully understand the risks before allowing their children to play youth football.

Before giving permission, they should make sure coaches teach players how to tackle without leading with their heads and league officials have strict head injury protocols in place. The best strategy is probably to not allow your child to play until they reach high school age.




The premature retirement of budding San Francisco 49er football star Chris Borland because of his concerns about the long-term cognitive effects of head collisions has refocused the debate about the risks of playing football. For Borland, retirement was not a knee-jerk decision. He did extensive homework on the connection between head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and talked to many people inside and outside of the game before deciding to retire. His conclusion was that football was not worth the risk to his health and safety.

The NFL’s reaction to Borland’s decision was predictable. It showed that the league still holds to the fantasy that risks can be effectively managed by safety protocols. Pointing to its own study that “concussions are down 25% in the last three years,” it proudly announced that “the game has never been safer,” a boast that should be considered in the context of its long history of fudging facts and dismissing evidence of lasting brain damage. Retired players are unlikely to be consoled and current players should be suspicious. Borland summarily dismissed the NFL’s claim as bogus as well as irrelevant. He believes the game is inherently dangerous, a fact that cannot be changed by safety measures.


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