Based on autopsy, doctors have determined that NFL Pro bowl linebacker, Junior Seau, suffered from CTE – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE is a degenerative condition that is either caused by or aggravated by repeated blows to the head. This condition – or is it a disease? – has been found in dozens of retired football players as a result of autopsies done on their brains. The fact that CTE is related directly to “repeated blows to the head” and to concussions means that people who play football for any length of time are in greater danger of acquiring CTE than are people who compete in chess or poker or bowling. That is a fact and there is no real way to get around it.
Long before doctors had a name for the condition called CTE, some people already knew that repeated blows to the head had a deleterious effect on a person’s life even after the repeated blows to the head stopped happening. The layman’s term for a retired boxer was “punch drunk” and there were few folks who doubted that taking hundreds of punches to the face and head contributed directly to “punch drunkenness”. Nonetheless, boxing continued to exist; the dangers of CTE are not what sent boxing into decline.
Currently, there are a bunch of lawsuits pending against the NFL, which revolve around the condition of CTE and the fact that the NFL made money off players who now suffer from CTE. Those players seek compensation in those suits. I will take no side in those disputes for the simple reason that I do not pretend to understand the pleadings and the applicable laws. I do want to make one observation with regard to all of those lawsuits:
Not all of the blows to the heads of the plaintiffs that nominally led to the condition of CTE happened in the NFL. Virtually no one comes to the NFL as a “football virgin”. By age 22 when a player comes to the NFL, he has probably played football for at least 7 or 8 years – and often more than that – and in that time he had to have suffered repeated blows to the head.
I understand the legal strategy of suing the party with the deepest pockets; but in reality, there is plenty of money associated with college football too. If the lawsuits seek to punish wrongdoers – and not merely to cash a settlement or a judgment check – there are other defendant(s) that need to be added to the complaint(s).
I think the real challenge for football now is to find ways to make the game safer without removing all of the aspects of the game that makes it popular. Here are five suggestions:
1. The current penalty for “hitting a defenseless receiver” or “slamming a player on the ground on his head” is 15 yards and a first down. That gets the player a rebuke from his head coach and a pat on the back from his position coach. So, maybe there is a need to get the coaches more invested in stopping that kind of play… Increase that penalty to:
15 yards and an automatic first down – plus –
The offending player has to go to the sidelines and cannot be replaced for the next 4 snaps of the ball. Defense has to play 10 on 11. That should get the coaches’ attention…
2. Personal fouls should accumulate. When a player has amassed a certain number for a season – say 8 personal fouls – he should be ejected immediately from the game at hand and be forced to sit out the next game. From that point on, he gets an ejection and a game suspension for 2 more personal fouls. After that, one more personal foul and he should be out for the next three games – even if those games stretch into the playoffs or into the next season.
3. Offensive players – particularly offensive lineman – who use their helmets as battering rams should suffer the same penalties for that action as defensive players.
4. There need to be doctors on the sidelines for all games and those doctors must not be in the employ of the teams. Moreover, it should fall to those doctors to decide if a player is cranially capable of continuing to play in a game.
5. When a player is found to have suffered a concussion, that player needs to be cleared to return to play by a medical board – not a single doctor – and that board should be established by and funded by the NFL and the NFLPA. Personally, I would mandate that a concussed player be ineligible for one game and then subject to the findings of this medical board but I would settle for the existence of the board itself to determine when/if a players is deemed ready to play again.
I understand that nothing I have suggested here will prevent repeated blows to the head in the game of football. In no way do I think these suggestions offer a “remedy” for the situation. I do think that they would help to alleviate the problem, as would one other change that would be very difficult in terms of existing stadiums. I think that the dimensions of the field should be increased – particularly the width of the field – so that the density of players is reduced and there are fewer high-speed multiple-body collisions.
Here are comments from two sports columnists regarding Junior Seau and the suicide that led to his brain autopsy:
“It’s sad and tragic that former NFL superstar Junior Seau committed suicide a few months ago, but it’s incredibly presumptuous for all the pundits to blame NFL-induced head trauma for Seau’s depressed condition. The fact is most people who commit suicide never played a down of football in their lives. Seau had relationship issues, prescription drug issues and financial issues. Isn’t it just as likely that any one of those factors had as much to do with his depression than concussions did?” [Mike Bianchi, Orlando Sentinel]
“We’re learning that former NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide while suffering from a form of dementia often associated with repeated blows to the head. But what most stories don’t mention is that in his 20-year pro career, he was never diagnosed with a concussion. It doesn’t mean, of course, he didn’t suffer any. A casual disregard for head injuries has caught up with a lot of ex-players.” [Bob Molinaro, Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot]
Finally, here is another observation from Bob Molinaro regarding the way other types of injuries are evaluated in today’s NFL:
“Cautionary tale: It’s not surprising that Redskins fans and the generic football crowd couldn’t even wait for Robert Griffin III to get out of surgery before asking if he’ll be ready for next season’s opener. But c’mon, this is exactly the sort of attitude that put him in jeopardy against Seattle. If Griffin’s recovery isn’t as rapid as hoped for, can we assume that somebody in the organization will understand the importance of seeing past the first game or even the first month of next season? But you never know with Mike Shanahan; on Sunday, he couldn’t see past the next play.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………