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Concussions – The NFL’s Biggest Headache
If Brian Westbrook’s vision isn’t too blurry and the fog engulfing his consciousness isn’t too thick, the shaken Eagles running back might want to thank Joseph Mason Reaves.
Reeves was also a football player, a breed of sportsman notable for his tendency to be both headstrong and weak. His teammates called him “Bull,” though he was often too dazed to hear them.
Lacking the tackle of the 1893 Navy team, Reeves’ unpleasant duty was to plow headlong into the flying studs, and the opposition’s attacks proceeded with deadly – literally, at times – efficiency.
In retrospect, headfirst was probably an unwise strategy, given that football heads like Reaves didn’t yet have helmets. In the sport’s infancy, players actually believed they could protect their heads simply by growing hair.
There are few who cut their hair during the season. Many suffered concussions.
Reeves, who like Ronald Reagan was born in Tampico, IL, must have had thin hair. He was knocked out so often that at the end of that 1893 season, the Naval Academy doctor warned him that the next one could lead to death or “momentary insanity.”
While deaths were not uncommon in an era of football so brutally violent it almost killed the sport, the madness was something else. The prospect of a crazed naval officer at the helm of an American battleship, the first of which was then under construction in the US Naval Shipyards, was not something the academy warden could condone.
So, although the fourth annual meeting with the Army was next on the Navy’s schedule, Capt. Robert L. Phithian called the 21-year-old into his office. “Reeves, good man,” he said to the senior, “I can’t in good conscience let you play in the upcoming Army game.”
But Bull Reeves, who while failing to recognize the danger of persistent head injuries did foresee the value of an aircraft carrier, possessed the resourcefulness of a future officer. The future admiral sought out a cobbler from Annapolis and asked him to make a moleskin head guard.
The result looked like something Attila the Hun might wear to a heist party – as conical as it is comical. Even so, the odd-looking device pleased Phithian. Reaves starred in Navy’s 6-4 victory and the football helmet, though not mandatory for nearly half a century, was born.
In the decades since Reaves preserved his playing status and presumably his sanity, helmets have undergone constant and significant changes. Doctors, trainers, engineers, pilots and coaches have tried to perfect them. The straps were added and then the lining. In the late 1940s, there was a switch from leather to molded plastic. Face masks were soon installed, and later airbag devices.
Today’s state-of-the-art helmets are sleek, sleek and handsome like sports cars. They cost hundreds of dollars a piece. They are effective marketing devices, with tens of thousands sold annually not only to teams, but also to collectors and obsessive fans.
And yet, as illustrated by the problems Philadelphia’s Westbrook, Washington’s Clinton Portis and at least a dozen other players have suffered this season, head injuries continue to be a major headache for the NFL.
By the league’s own estimate, there are 120 to 130 concussions a season — a number a recent Associated Press investigation suggests may be vastly underreported. “Guys today are a lot bigger, a lot faster than they used to be,” said Redskins broadcaster and former linebacker Sam Huff. “The game is violent and always will be.”
That rationale doesn’t help much in a hyper-litigious era. So Commissioner Roger Goodell recently ruled that no player who suffers a concussion will be allowed to return to the game. Players are also under increasing pressure to stop playing after injury.
“Once removed during practice or a game,” Goodell’s memo states, “a player should not be considered for return to football activities until he is fully asymptotic, both at rest and after exertion, and has undergone a normal neurological examination, normal neuropsychological testing, and was cleared to return by his team physician(s) and an independent neurological consultant.”
The conundrum facing soccer in this health-conscious age goes back to the very nature of the sport: How do you remove violent hits from a sport of violent impact? With better helmets? Tougher penalties? Stricter medical policies?
So far, none of those options have done much to curb the epidemic. Baseball, if it wanted to, could just remove its most violent aspect, the bean balls. Basketball has been successful in combating stray elbows and lane robberies.
Hockey is probably closest to soccer among the four major sports in its propensity for head shots, but on the ice they don’t happen nearly as regularly.
All the NFL knows at this early stage of what is becoming an increasingly uncomfortable topic for the league, is that something has to be done.
In addition to Goodell’s new edict, a Players Advisory Forum was formed, headed by Tony Dungy. Its purpose is to get information on pressing issues from players around the league and relay it to Commissioner Roger Goodell. He has already asked helmet manufacturers to come up with a safer design. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. “The players continue to be an invaluable resource in providing guidance and insight into a wide range of programs and policies,” the commissioner said in a statement announcing the board’s formation. “Tony’s experience and expertise in working with players make him an ideal leader.”
The panel will almost certainly reveal what a recent study by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found. That study found that 6.1 percent of the players who responded suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or another memory disorder. That’s five times the national average for men their age.
The numbers were even worse for younger NFL alumni. Those between 30 and 49 reported suffering from those diseases at a rate 19 times higher than the American average.
A subsequent Associated Press survey of 160 current NFL players found that half had suffered serious head injuries — and that many hid the fact from their teams.
Much of the blame, of course, can be attributed to the peculiar physics of football. Big, physically gifted running backs and defensive backs are thrown like missiles at each other. Helmets, designed to protect, often become dangerous projectiles as players ram them into their backs, pelvises and occasionally other heads.
Less noticeable but equally insidious, even bigger linemen regularly engage in steel cage fights.
And running backs and receivers who jump for extra yards often get kneed in the head — as Westbrook did — by rushing defenders. Not surprisingly, these repetitive convulsive acts can have a dangerous cumulative effect.
According to a recent New Yorker magazine article, researchers believe that most of these affected former players have a neurological disorder called CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), the result of repeated trauma to the brain.
Autopsies found varying degrees of CTE, the magazine said, in the brain of Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who was a reclusive homeless man when he died; Andre Waters, the stricken Eagles safety who, in a state of severe depression, killed himself with a bullet to the head, and Justin Strzelczyk, the former Steelers lineman who was killed when he was driving his car the wrong way on a freeway and hit a truck at 90 mph.
If football players retired after their first serious head injury, experts claim that they would have fewer problems later in life. But unfortunately, there wouldn’t be many players left to form a league.
Virtually every NFL player, at some point in their career, has lost consciousness during a game or practice. Too many do not reveal the depth of their problem because they are afraid of losing their position. Dungey, for example, told a radio interviewer that he did just that. And after Westbrook suffered a concussion earlier in the season, he sat out two games, came back and got concussed again.
The New York Times reported that Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu has suffered six documented concussions since high school. The total was three for Steelers KB Ben Roethligsberger, who recently missed a game after going down.
How many will end up like former Steelers Webster and Strzelczyk?
“It’s not that you just lost cognitive skills,” said Douglas H. Smith, a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Bryan Injury and Repair Center, “but you’ve also increased your chances of having a worse problem later in life.” Right now, the NFL can’t think of a worse problem.
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