More Evidence Piles On to Football's Link to Cognitive Problems

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • It’s not been a good couple of weeks for football. First of all, you have the video showing domestic abuse by Baltimore Raven running back Ray Rice. Then you get the accusation of child abuse by Minnesota Viking running back Adrian Peterson.  Both are awful. But in my mind, when you think about dementia, there’s another issue that continues to overshadow these terrible incidents in relation to football – the long-term consequences of concussions caused by the sport.

    Exhibit A: The National Football League now has submitted court documents that include statistics calculated by actuaries forecasting that almost one-third of NFL players will develop long-term cognitive problems, such as dementia. “…our assumptions result in prevalence rates by age group that are materially higher than those expected in the general population,” said the report by the Segal Group. “Furthermore, the model forecasts that players will develop these diagnoses at notably younger ages than the generation population.” As the Houston Chronicle editorial board wrote over the weekend, “…those haunting actuarial findings, after years of denial from the NFL, represent a long-term threat to the $10-billion-a-year business that is professional football. They’re certainly more of a threat than the two off-the-field incidents that have commanded our attention the past few days.” The editorial board warned that if football leaders didn’t find a way to limit concussions, the sport could join boxing as a “gladiatorial niche sport.”

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    Exhibit B: Studies have found that some college football players who didn’t have a history of concussions had a significantly smaller hippocampal region of the brain, which is responsible for memory, as well as significant changes in the brain’s white matter, which handles basic cognitive function.

    Exhibit C: High school football players are at risk. A survey conducted two years ago of high school athletes in Ohio and Pennsylvania found that 42 percent had sustained at least a mild concussion. Furthermore, football was found to have the highest rate of concussions in the nine sports that were studied. The rate of concussions caused by football practices and games increased by more than 50 percent from 2005 through 2013-2014 school year. While Time magazine reporter Sean Gregory pointed out that part of the increase may be due to more awareness and increased reporting of concussions, it also underscores the brutality of the game.

    Exhibit D: Researchers found that 19 boys who were between the ages of 7-9 who participated in football received a total of 3,061 blows to the head. Sixty-percent of these blows were sustained during practice. Some of these blows were the equivalent of what a person would experience in a car crash.

    Exhibit E: The cover of the September 29 issue of Time features a headline, “He died playing this game. Is football worth it?” In this story, Gregory introduces readers to Chad Stover, a 16-year-old who played high school football in Tipton, Missouri. He died as the result of a catastrophic brain injury sustained in a playoff game. This story puts a personal face on the dilemma that football officials fear and that players face.

  • Fortunately, more and more parents are taking heed and keeping their children who are between the ages of 6-12 out of tackle football. So even if the NFL is not taking effective action, wiser heads are prevailing. And frankly, it’s not a moment too soon if league officials and policymakers continue to give lip service about player safety.

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    Belson, K. (2014). Brain trauma to affect one in three players, NFL agrees. New York Times.

    Harvey, R. (2014). NFL has black eyes, but biggest issue still all in the head. Houston Chronicle.

    Editorial Board. (2014). An alarming trend: Nearly a third of retired NFL players can expect to develop long-term cognitive issues. Houston Chronicle.

    Gregory, S. (2014). ‘It didn’t cross my mind that I wouldn’t see him come off that field.’ The tragic risks of an American obsession. Time Magazine.

Published On: September 22, 2014