A risky game

At what point does the mounting evidence that football-related head injuries cause brain disease require some type of intervention?

Some of it has already occurred with advances in helmet design and concussion protocols, but it’s becoming more clear that a ban on the game or a major alteration in the way it’s played is unlikely, precisely because recent findings make players all too aware of the risks.

The knock on the National Football League is that for decades it was willing to look the other way when it came to concussions. Many accused the NFL of denying, or even covering up, the long-term implications of repeated head trauma. When the league settled a massive concussion lawsuit with thousands of former players in 2013, it didn’t have to acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Until recently, the difference between boxing — another brutal sport with a high incidence of brain injury — and football, was that boxers entered the ring knowing full well they could end up with brain damage. Whereas football players were risking diminished mental capacity without knowing it.

Recent studies are making the risks of brain disease in football just as transparent, shifting accountability onto the players and making them advocates for their own health.

An updated study published Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 110 of 111 brains of deceased former NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

This is the degenerative brain disease whose discovery was chronicled in the 2015 movie “Concussion.” Will Smith portrays the real-life doctor who figured out that persistent head injuries shake up the brain, releasing a protein that builds up and wreaks havoc with normal brain function.

There’s no way to diagnose CTE in a living person. It’s only post-mortem testing that reveals the disease’s ravages on the brain. More players living in the fog of memory loss, hallucinations and unpredictable mood swings are requesting that their brains be donated to science.

And it’s not just the NFL dealing with this concussion problem. The NCAA settled a class-action concussion lawsuit last year, agreeing to spend $75 million on medical monitoring of college athletes and prevention research. Currently, the NCAA and the major football conferences are facing dozens of class-action suits from former players who contend they suffered concussions and did not receive proper treatment.

We sympathize with the players who made career decisions without knowing the medical risks that have been uncovered since the days when smelling salts were used to treat a woozy on-field condition. But these latest findings are making it clear that players are putting qualify of life on the line when they choose to suit up.

Knowing that the game could literally cause players to lose their minds down the road, how many are willing to walk away from millions of dollars?

As spectators, we’re complicit in this health crisis. Players only play and get paid because we watch — religiously. So they shouldn’t look to the public for answers. A solution is going to have to come from the players themselves.


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