NFL, NHL tackle head injuries

December 22, 2009

Big Ben
A phone survey commissioned by the NFL last September reported that diagnosis rates of Alzheimer’s and other memory-related diseases among former players appeared to be much higher than in the population as a whole — five times the national rate for men aged 50 and above, and 19 times for men aged 30 to 49.

The NFL’s response was to point to the limitations of that telephone survey, saying its own study on the long-term effects of concussion would provide a much better picture, but facing growing criticism from outside experts, the players union and members of Congress, the League’s stance now appears to be somewhat different.

On Sunday, the NFL said it would support research by its most vocal critics and said that concussions can have lasting consequences.

It’s huge that the NFL actively gets behind this research,” Robert Cantu, the co-director at Boston University’s research program, told the Associated Press. “It forwards the research. It allows players to realize the NFL is concerned about the possibility that they could have this problem and that the NFL is doing everything it can to find out about the risks and the preventive strategies that can be implemented.”

There have been several stark examples of NFL retirees suffering problems in this area.

A post-mortem on former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Justin Strzelczyk in 2004 concluded that his depression and dementia were exacerbated by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease known to cause cognitive decline, behavioral abnormalities and ultimately dementia. CTE is usually associated with athletes vulnerable to head injuries such as boxers. Strzelczyk was only 36, but his brain looked like that of an 80-year-old.

In another case, neuropathologists concluded that former Philadelphia Eagles player Andre Waters’ depression and suicide in 2006 were the result of concussions.

Last week, the National Hockey League tackled a similar problem during a meeting of its board of governors in Pebble Beach, California. Neuropathologists at Boston University say tests on the brain of Reggie Fleming, an enforcer who delivered and absorbed thousands of bare-knuckles punches to the head during his 12-year NHL career, also suffered from CTE.

So far, the NHL has refused to expand the discussion beyond so-called predatory hits while avoiding the issue of fist fights altogether, an aspect of the game that consistently brings the crowd to its feet.

Before Fleming’s death last summer at 73 years old, his son Chris posted a series of videos on Youtube where he explains how his father started experiencing manic depression in his 40s, drank excessively and exhibited short-term memory problems by the time he entered his 50s.

Photo: Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is secured to a stretcher after being injured during the second quarter of their NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, December 28, 2008.  REUTERS/ Jason Cohn

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The introduction of safety gear has actually increased the severity of injuries. Helmets have become weapons as well as head protection. When the game was played with minimal protection, it was a less violent game.

The rule of unintended consequences. But once adopted, good luck in rolling things back.

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