Sanctions Against Saints Appropriate Due to Link Between Dementia, Concussions
I wanted to take a bit of time to ponder my response to the news of the National Football League’s sanctions of the New Orleans Saints. Yet I find that my initial thoughts haven’t changed during that time – I think the NFL did the right thing to sanction the Saints for their bounty program designed to hurt opposing players so they have to be taken out of the game, often with concussions. I believe that the suspension of Saints head coach Sean Payton for one season and an assistant coach for six games, the indefinite suspension of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and the barring of general manager Mickey Loomis for half of 2012 are the correct decisions. The team fine and loss of two second-round draft picks also send an important message, as does the impending sanctions against individual players who participated in the bounty scheme. And if I was commissioner, I would suggest one more sanction, which I’ll describe later in this sharepost.
I make these statements while acknowledging that I’ve cheered for the Saints in the past, having become a fan of Drew Brees. And as I mentioned in my 2009 sharepost, football has been a part of my life from infanthood when my parents would cheer madly from the top deck of Mile High Stadium for the Denver Broncos (who were not very good at that point in time). Football continued to be part of the culture that I grew up in since I attended Odessa Permian High School, which was the focus of the book, “Friday Night Lights” (and the subsequent movie by that name). And I have lived in a state that worships the Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans, University of Texas Longhorns and Texas A&M Aggies. Football is king!
Football is an inherently violent sport. However, the Saints’ implicit agreement to place a bounty on opposing players in order to knock them out of the game – most often through a concussion – crosses the line not only in sportsmanship, but in humanity. That’s because research increasingly is showing that concussions can lead to dementia. These findings, quite frankly, trump the list of what’s considered important in football -- winning and championships (including Super Bowl trophies).
So let’s go a little bit into the research. As I mentioned in that 2009 sharepost, one study involved a phone survey of 1,063 retired NFL players and their caregivers by University of Michigan researchers. The researchers found that more than six percent of players who were 50 years old and above reported that they had received a dementia-related diagnosis. This percentage was five times higher than the national average of 1.2 percent. Furthermore, players who were between the ages of 30-49 had a rate of 1.9 percent, which was 19 times higher than the national average of 0.1 percent.
In July 2011, Shirley Wang of The Wall Street Journal described a study that provided more evidence linking concussions sustained during football to dementia. Loyola University Medical Center researchers looked at 500 former NFL players with probably mild cognitive impairment. A small group of these former players had undergone cognitive testing. This small group was then compared with another group who was much older and who had not played professional sports; this second group also had been officially diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. “The study confirmed that the former football players performed similarly in cognitive testing to the non-sports-playing group, even though they were significantly younger,” Wang reported.
So, you’re now asking, what other sanction would I propose in the Saints’ bounty program? I think the funds collected by the NFL from these sanctions should be used to make a substantial donation to the newly announced Darrell K. Royal Fund for Alzheimer’s Research. Royal, the legendary coach of the University of Texas football team, was recently announced as having Alzheimer’s disease. The fund created in his name will focus on cutting-edge clinical research into Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. By supporting the Royal Fund, the NFL would send a clear message to players, coaches, team management and the fans that concussions – and the potential for Alzheimer’s or other dementias-- should not be encouraged through bounty programs.