A couple days ago, more definitive evidence that the professional helmet-smashing lifespan of an NFL player has detrimental effects on the human brain. It still probably won't change the way the game is played.
Researchers at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) used the brains of seven dead NFL football players, including John Grimsley, Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long, and Tom McHale. The results of their findings showed that the players, even though most were in their 30s and 40s, all had the brain make-up of an 80-year-old man with onset dementia.
"What's been surprising is that (the damage is) so extensive," said Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, and co-director of the CSTE. "It's throughout the brain, not just on the superficial aspects of the brain, but it's deep inside."
The damage affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, rage, hypersexuality, even breathing, and recent studies find that CTE is a progressive disease that eventually kills brain cells.
Yet, Dr. Ira Casson, co-chair of the NFL's concussion committee that was formed in 2007, is still not 100% convinced:
"It’s very hard to react to things and to case studies that are not presented in appropriate, scientific form and have not gone through peer review. I think that there are many questions that still are out there as to whether there is a kind of traumatic encephalopathy associated with football. I think we don’t know. I think that there is not enough scientific evidence to say that there is.”
The reality is it's the responsibility of the player to know when to stop. The NFL's never going to step in because then the league would take on more responsibility and blame for the premature deaths of many of their ex-players. There's a difference between player concussions that are "reported" to team trainers and those that actually happen. Many concussed players never speak up— if the dizziness subsides before they get back to the sidelines, well, they're fine. Back in the game.
And most players know the risks and play through the warning signs. 45 seems so far away when you're a 25-year-old that it might as well be 80.
I interviewed Bill Romanowski in late November about his nutritional supplement business (Nutrition53) and this issue came up. Romanowski estimates he suffered 20+ concussions throughout his football playing career. At 42, he's already suffered the memory loss, depression, and slurred speech, but he was convinced that his supplements were helpful in staving off the effects. And Bill still wants to play. I asked him if he'd play the game any differently if he knew what he knows no — if he knew it would add another 10 healthy years to his life to be with his family and friends and children — and, without pausing, he said "No." He even said that even though he's probably one head shot away from being a vegetable, he'd strap on the pads tomorrow.
I'm sure many in the league share the same attitude. So how do you fix that?