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Erin Dietel-McLaughlin WR13300 - Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric 9 November 2012 It’s Football or the Brain As a nation that lauds the act of competition, the United States has become especially crazed with sports. This very crazed nature has allowed professional sports leagues to grow to the point of generating billions of dollars of revenue each year. One sport which may illustrate this fact better than any other is football, which stands at the very peak of the American sporting world today. With revenue that even surpasses that of “America’s Pastime,” baseball, football has enjoyed standing as the most profitable sport at both the professional, and collegiate level for quite some time. Perhaps, one of the greatest reasons the sport has been able to succeed so vibrantly stems from the sport’s violent nature, which attracts many fans looking for big hits. As USA Today columnist and sports writer Robert Lipsyte notes, “The violence of the game, especially on the college and pro level, has always been one of its main attractions.” Nonetheless, it is now becoming apparent that it is that very violent nature that threatens the sport’s popularity today. The development of sophisticated technologies has allowed science to make much progress in understanding the intricacies of the human brain over the past few decades. Although much is still to be learned, science has also made many strides in understanding the dangerous repercussions of head trauma, and specifically those of concussions. It has come to light that concussions are much more severe than once originally thought, and that repeated, even minor concussions can result in major consequences in one’s the future. As a result, football
Kohl 2 leagues like the NFL, which has taught players to continue playing “a little dinged up,” have received a great amount of criticism from the general media. This criticism surely has reflected upon many peoples’ image of the sport, and has put the NFL under a great deal of pressure. The only way the NFL can respond to this pressure and expect to succeed in the future is to lessen the number and severity of concussions in the sport. To do so, it must promote safer game play and finally find a helmet that truly protects the players’ brains from injury. In order to show why the NFL must make these changes, this essay will first evidence the latest scientific research uncovering the real hidden dangers stemming from repeated head blows. Through this, it will become apparent that repeated concussions can and do, in fact, result in life long, sometimes debilitating, repercussions. Moving on, the paper will display how football’s culture, coupled with the uselessness of today’s concussion policies in the NFL have put all players at risk of developing these debilitating mental diseases. The essay will then evidence how the media has put pressure on the NFL for failing to protect its players from developing severe brain damage in their futures. The paper will finally conclude that Americans will generate less favorable impressions of the sport as the media informs an increasing number of people about the dangers of playing football. If the NFL fails to respond to this threat, the supremacy the league enjoys in American sports today will surely be challenged. To understand how football will be threatened by increased awareness of concussions, it is first necessary to understand that concussions do indeed pose a threat to the life long mental health to the sport’s players. This is first evidenced by a multitude of statistics linking higher rates of chronic mental disease to NFL retirees. For example, after conducting a sample of 1,063 NFL retirees in 2009, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan found that the rate of mental disease in NFL retirees was multiple times greater than the average American
Kohl 3 man (32). Specifically, the rate of Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, or other memory related diseases in an NFL retiree between the ages of thirty to forty nine was found to be about 1.9% (32). Comparatively, the rate of this age group in the average American man it is a mere 0.1% (32). Furthermore NFL retirees over 50 have 6.1% chance of displaying symptoms of these diseases while only 1.9% of other American men over 50 exhibit signs of these mental handicaps (32). Michigan is not alone in expressing these beliefs. Their findings are supported by the findings of Dr. Alan Schwartz who, in a New York Times article noted “that retired N.F.L. players are five to nineteen times as likely as the general population to have received a dementiarelated diagnosis.” Moreover, physician, USA Today columnist, and football fan Katherine Chretien admits that there is indeed “mounting medical evidence of repetitive head trauma causing chronic brain injury and an early form of Alzheimer-like dementia”. It’s important to understand that claims like these are not at all unsubstantiated by scientific research. Each of these claims can be explained by recent advances in neuroscience. In their book, The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic, Linda Carroll and David Rosner evidence a study by Douglass Smith, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania. In a scientific study, Smith made a link between head trauma and onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. In an interview discussing his recent study Smith noted that characteristics similar with those of Alzheimer’s disease appear in the human brain after just one severe blow to the head. Specifically, Smith is quoted as saying “with a single brain injury you can get both pathologies… [Patients] have hallmark pathologies of Alzheimer’s even though they are young” (177). In other words, Smith evidences how trauma, or even one hit, to the brain can helps lead to the earlier onset of Alzheimer’s in ones life. Findings like these certainly illustrate why NFL retirees are at such greater risk of contracting mental diseases, for football players routinely take
Kohl 4 hits to the head. These findings also display how football players gamble their futures with each time they suit up to play. In addition to general statistics and scientific studies, the lives of specific NFL retirees also demonstrate the crippling impacts football can have on one’s life. One such man is Kevin Turner a retired NFL fullback who attained the nickname “The Collision Expert.” He gained this name as result of scratches he accumulated on his helmet at the end of each football game. Since retiring from the league in 1999 Turner has developed a disease very similar to ALS. As a result, Turner, at the age of just 42, has lost a great deal of motor function and relies heavily on his family for support. Scientific American writer Jeffery Bartholet notes that, Turner could be suffering from a disease with nearly identical symptoms to ALS. However, Bartholet believes the disease may be result from something completely different than most ALS patients. He along with many researchers conceive that Tuner’s ALS-like symptoms are a direct result of repeated blows to the head Turner sustained while playing football. In other words, it is very likely that Turner’s crippling disease is a direct result of brain trauma he received throughout his career. Stories like Turner’s are not at all uncommon among NFL retirees. As the statistics point out, a great deal of retirees face the same hardships as Turner. The fact this is true speaks to the real danger football players have face while playing the sport they love. As a result, one can conclude thay brain injuries and specifically concussions in the NFL should no longer be taken as lightly as they once were. Ever since the true dangers of head blows have been uncovered, one might suspect that leagues like the NFL have acknowledged the dangers of concussions, and since done everything in their ability to protect players from these dangerous head blows. Nonetheless, this is not true. As late as 2007 the NFL had denied the strong correlation of higher rates of brain disease with
Kohl 5 the league’s retirees. In an HBO interview in 2007 the chairman of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, Dr. Ira Casson, flat out denied the higher rate of brain disease among NFL veterans. In their book, Carroll and Rosner sum up the entire interview with one relatively short quote. In this quote, Casson is being asked a series of questions by an HBO interviewer. At one point the interview goes as follows:
[Interviewer asks] ‘Is there any evidence, as far as you’re concerned, that links multiple head injuries among pro football players with depression?’ ‘[Casson responds] No.’ ‘…with dementia?’ ‘No’ ‘…with early onset of Alzheimer’s’ ‘No’ ‘Is their any evidence… that links multiple head injuries with any longterm problem like that?’ ‘No.’ (247)
As one can see, as late as 2007, the NFL was ignorant, perhaps by choice, to the research being done warning the league of the risks its players faced. It’s especially important to note that, without even acknowledging the problem, the league certainly could not begin to find its solution. Only after being brought to congress in the 2010 off season did the league pass any real safety rules in response to concussion research. Nonetheless, none of the rule changes did much to prevent the prevalence of concussions in the following 2010 season. In the first week of the 2010 season, it became immediately apparent that the NFL did not do enough to protect its players (Carrol and Rossner 264). That week, Philadelphia Eagles’ linebacker, Stewart Bradley, was jarred in the head by the hip of one of his own teammates. As Carroll and Rosner note, after the hit, Bradley slowly got back to his feet, walked only a few steps, and collapsed in front of over 60,000 fans in attendance. Although, it may have been nearly impossible for the NFL to prevent this incident, it was the Eagles’ medical staff’s feeble response to the situation that portrayed the need for further concussion reform in the NFL. Only a few minutes after the hit, the team doctors had cleared the, “clearly concussed player” (264), to
Kohl 6 return to the field. While on the field, Bradley ran the risk of sustaining an even more potent concussion that could have drastically altered his life or even resulted in an occurrence called second impact syndrome. Although much is still not understood about second impact syndrome it is understood that the syndrome results from sustaining one blow to the head and then sustaining another before the brain can heal. Shockingly, about fifty percent of these cases result in death (Tyler). By being put in shortly after receiving a concussion Bradley certainly ran the risk of developing second impact syndrome. It was only at halftime that Bradley was finally given a full test and diagnosed with a concussion (Carroll and Rosner 264). It is important to note that Bradley’s concussion was severe enough to hold him out of the next four games that season. The very fact Bradley was able to come in after receiving such a severe concussion illustrates how unconcerned NFL remains even today regarding the prevalence of concussions in the leagues games. Moreover, Bradley’s incident was certainly not the only occurrence of its kind in the 2010 season. USA Today columnist Robert Lipsyte provides another example of the dangers NFL players ran even after the new concussion rules were put in place. He evidences an incident when Colt’s receiver Austin Collie was knocked unconscious after receiving a hit from Eagles safety, Curt Coleman. After the hit, Collie remained motionless in the center of the field in front of thousands of fans for several minutes. Most importantly, Lipstyle notes that the NFL did virtually nothing to regulate the rules to prevent incidents like this one from happening in the future. Rather, the leagues only response was to shield Coleman from criticism by stating that his jarring hit on Collie was indeed, legal, under NFL rules. As a whole, like Bradley’s incident, Austin Collie’s incident illustrates the NFL’s overall lack of protection of its players in the game to this very day. Incidents like these along with a multitude of very similar occurrences since the
Kohl 7 2010 rule changes evidence the fact that the NFL has not yet done enough to protect its players from jarring blows to the head. Only recently has the NFL taken heat from the media about the risks it imposes on its players. New Yorker columnist Ben Mcgrath notes that, as of 2007, very little had been written about the neurological dangers NFL players faced with each game they played. As a result, the United States’ population was generally oblivious of these risks. According to McGrath, this all changed when columnist Alan Schwartz wrote the cover story, "Expert Ties Ex-Player's Suicide to Brain Damage from Football,” in The New York Times. Over a period of several months Schwartz continued to write articles about the dangers football players faced, and even wrote articles from the viewpoint of NFL-retirees wives, whose husbands lives had been changed forever. McGrath goes on to note that many of these articles captured the attention of a great deal of Americans, and, in doing so, educated a great deal of people about the dangers of playing football. Since, Scwatrz’s work was published, articles and documentaries outlining the neurological dangers of football and the lives of crippled NFL retirees have become increasingly popular. Since 2007, publications like Time Magazine, USA Today, and The New Yorker, have continued what Schwartz started and have been writing and publishing stories much like his. Many of these articles directly criticize the NFL for its lack of player care in regard to brain trauma, and consequently the general population has become even more immersed in the conflict between football and concussions. It is also important to note that these articles are not only included in third party publications, but even included in sports centered media including Sports Illustrated and ESPN which rely heavily on the NFL for profits (McGrath). This fact illustrates just how mainstream articles like these are today. This mainstream media spotlight on the NFL has certainly made America’s general population increasingly informed of the neurological
Kohl 8 hazards NFL players face with each game they play. It is this very fact which poses the threat to the NFL’s dominance in the American sporting world. Ever since the media spotlighted the dangers of concussions in football, peoples’ perceptions of the sport have certainly changed. Some have even expressed a new belief that simply watching football games conflicts with one’s inner morality. As Lipstyle explains, “it wasn't until recently, as the roster of damaged brains was revealed, that watching football began to feel more like a guilty pleasure”. Lipstyle is certainly not the only person in the country to express this oncoming belief about football. Carroll and Rosner give the example Whitey Baun, who after exposure to the devastating consequences of concussions, noted that, “the hits that once roused [him] out of his living room chair now made him wince” (39). It is important to mention that Lipstyle and Baun are not completely alone in their beliefs. A recent ESPN poll taken by columnist Paula Lavigne found that about eighteen percent of fans said that “the concussion debate has made them less likely to follow football or watch it on television.” This statistic is extremely important because the overall NFL fan base will almost certainly shrink as fans lose their comfort with watching football. Instead, people may turn to watching different sports where long term player health is not risked to the extent it is in football. As Lipstyle notes, “Football is the only one of America's big four team sports predicated on brutal play”. As fans turn to different sports the NFL will almost certainly feel a financial impact. Tickets to NFL games will almost certainly bring in less money, television ratings will begin to fall, and memorabilia sales will go down. Consequently, the NFL certainly could begin to lose its financial dominance in the world of American sports, if NFL does not increase peoples’ comfort with watching NFL games.
Kohl 9 It’s also important to note that not only does the concussion debate affect the number of fans the league has today, but that it also affects the leagues fan base of the future. Parents who have already been exposed to the mounting evidence linking football to brain disease have expressed their belief that they wish their son’s not play the sport. One example is columnist, football fan, and mother Katherine Chretien who simply explains, “I don't want my children playing tackle football at all.” Chretien is certainly not the only parent in the country to share this opinion. Even football players themselves such as retired quarterback Kurt Warner and present Jets linebacker Bart Scott have publicly stated they do not want their sons to play the sport. Cases like these are certainly not isolated. Statistics show that a great deal of parents are preventing their children from football as a result of the increased concussion awareness they received from the media. For example, ESPN columnist Paula Lavigne took a poll which found that about 57 percent of parents said they were less likely to allow their sons to play football since the true dangers of concussions have been realized. Moreover, two-thirds of the parents in this pool noted that they feel concussions in youth football are indeed a serious issue. These statistics should be very frightening to the NFL. As parents disallow their sons to play football, and, instead, have their children play less dangerous sports, the overall number of youth football players in the US will certainly be on the decline. With less youth football players there will certainly be less overall interest in football amongst the youth population. This decreased number of youth fans will once again correlate to lower revenues for the NFL as youth sales, like memorabilia drop. Although these statistics may seem very concrete, some football fans today may assert that the emphasis on concussions today will not affect the fan base of leagues like the NFL. These people may pose the argument that the players themselves understand the risks they take
Kohl 10 and decide to play anyway. Therefore they may believe that people will feel no moral obligation to stop watching football. Nonetheless, they are failing to notice that statistics show that people already have begun to develop less favorable opinions about watching and supporting the sport. Moreover, this argument does not account for the parents who withhold their children from football. In this case, parents do not keep their children from playing football because of a moral disparity with the NFL, rather these parents simply aim to protect their children. Hence, even if people continue to watch and attend football games at the rate they do now, the overall fan base of football will shrink as the number of youth football players shrink, even if people feel football players understand the risks they are taking. All the while, this very dire prediction of the NFL’s future can be avoided if the NFL simply decides to revamp its rules and policies to protect its players. Although some fans may assert that it is impossible to make the game safer without destroying the essence of the game, this is simply not true. Over the last several years there have been numerous proposals of how to make football safer than it is today. Robert Lipstyle gives an excellent summation of all the possible in game rule changes that would likely dramatically reduce the number of head injuries in football. One key rule change Lipstyle advocates for is prohibiting the use of the use of the three point stance by lineman. He notes that this stance allows the lineman to propel themselves at one another just as sprinters propel themselves when they leave the starting blocks in a race. Banning this stance would result in much less forceful collisions on the line of scrimmage, which, with luck, would limit the force of the blows linemen’s heads take with each play. In addition to this ban, Lipstyle also pulls for other changes to game play including the “enforcement of rules against spearing a ‘defenseless’ opponent, better helmets, head injury courses for coaches at all levels, and a return to the old ‘wrap-around’ body tackle instead of the
Kohl 11 head-first hit.” With the exception of developing safer helmets, all of these rule changes provide an immediate response the NFL could take to lessen the dangers on player’s brains. Furthermore, all of these changes would make the game safer without drastically altering the way football is played today. If the NFL hopes to successfully navigate the media’s spotlight
on the safety in the league it must make changes like these. These changes would finally to prove to the general population that football has finally become a safer sport and, most importantly, less harsh on players’ brains. As a result, the NFL would be able to avoid falling from its elite position among American professional leagues. Another way the NFL could save itself from the repercussions of the violence of football would be to develop safer helmets. Today, the system of developing safe helmets is obviously failing, as concussion rates in football remain very high. Time columnist Jeffery Kluger gives a reason for this when he evidences that, “The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment,” the organization that certifies helmets today, is funded by the very corporations which manufacturer the football helmets. In other words, football helmets today are certified by the very people who make the helmets. As one can see, a conflict in interests is obvious. A helmet manufacturer now has incentive to make helmets as inexpensively as possible, since there really is no risk of a helmet failing to be certified. The problem is that these manufacturers very well may be trading the overall safety of their product for higher profit margins. If the NFL looks to provide football players with quality helmets it must end this conflict of interests. Furthermore, Kluger also notes that this problem is compounded by the fact that today football helmets are only designed to limit lacerations or fractures to the skull, not to prevent concussions. He emphasizes his point that the helmets in the market today “do little or nothing to prevent concussions.” It’s important to understand that Kluger’s claim is not merely
Kohl 12 subjective but rather backed by statistical evidence. As Katherine Chretien notes, a recent study found that high school football players’ helmets are repeatedly subjected to 20 g to 100 g blows over the course of a practice. All the while, 75 g’s are standard considered enough force to cause a concussion. If the NFL, with the financial resources it has today, chooses to put a great deal of resources into finding a method of producing safer helmets it will almost certainly be successful in doing so. Safer helmets could drastically lower the concussion rate in football, without changing the game in any shape or form. A lower concussion rate in the NFL would certainly bode well for the league’s public image, and allow the league to maintain the fan bases it has today. If the league is successful in doing so, it would certainly be able to carry on as the top grossing league in the American sporting world. All in all, the advent of concussion research has certainly put the NFL under a great deal of pressure. Ever since third party scientists have begun studying the effects of concussions on the brain it has become very apparent that concussions can and in many cases do lead to permanent brain damage. This science has been backed by the life experiences of a number of retired NFL players who, since retiring, have developed chronic brain diseases which both depreciated the quality of and shortened their lives. Since the link of concussions to brain damage has been made, the media has jumped on leagues like the NFL where concussions are commonplace, and players are cleared to play while still concussed. This very spotlight has already turned a great deal of people away from the NFL, and will continue to do so as the media continues to educate people about the dangers of concussions. If the NFL fails to respond to the image much of the media bestows upon it today, it will surely lose the peak position in the world of American sports leagues it enjoys today. Luckily for the NFL, the league has the ability to
Kohl 13 avoid this desolate future if it chooses to employ new rules that decrease the frequency and vigor of head impacts, and focuses on the production of new, safer helmets.
Kohl 14 Works Cited Bartholet, Jeffrey. "The Collision Syndrome." Scientific American 306.2 (2012): 6671. Academic Search Premier. Web. 31 Oct. 2012. Carroll, Linda, and David Rosner. The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print. Katherine, Chretien. "Risk a child's brain for football?." USA Today n.d.: Academic Search Premier. Web. 31 Oct. 2012. Kluger, Jeffrey. "Headbanger Nation." Time 177.4 (2011): 42-51. Academic Search Premier. Web. 31 Oct. 2012. Paula Lavigne. "Concussion News Worries parents." ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 26 Aug. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2012. Robert, Lipsyte. "Only we can save the NFL from itself." USA Today n.d.: Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. Tyler, Jeffrey H., and Michael E. Nelson. "SECOND IMPACT SYNDROME: Sports Confront Consequences Of Concussions." USA Today Magazine 128.2660 (2000): 72.Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Nov. 2012. Wier, David R., James S. Jackson, and Amanda Sonnega. “National Football League Player Care Foundation.” Institute for Social Research University of Michigan (n.d.): n. pag. University of Michigan, 10 Sept. 2009. Web. 11 Oct. 2012.