Culture of Football From NFL to Youth Still Needs to Change

Patient Expert

Yesterday I was pulled into a Facebook conversation about football and concussions. It was a thought-provoking conversation that was spurred by my friend's post on the latest legal turn in the National Football League's concussion settlement. And I threw an additional news story into the mix that focuses on the Friday Night Tykes documentary. All of that information serves as fodder for this sharepost.

First of all, let me catch you up on the professional football saga.   In late August the NFL and more than 4,000 former players reached a $760-million settlement of a lawsuit that held that the league didn't warn players about the dangers of head injuries even though the league knew the consequences of those hard hits. Another section of the lawsuit held that these retired players were not assisted enough in dealing with the cognitive issues that emerged from these head injuries.

Earlier this week, Judge Anita Brody did not approve this settlement. Her reasoning was that the negotiators hadn't provided necessary documentation about the fairness of the settlement figure. Furthermore, the negotiators didn't adequately show how these retired players would receive proper diagnosis of cognitive conditions and then be paid properly for the treatment and caregiving they will need.

Right when this new wrinkle in the settlement was announced, a news story caught my eye about a new documentary series, "Friday Night Tykes." I went to the series website and started to watch the first show which features players who are 8-9 years of age. The video literally starts with a coach's statement:   "You have the opportunity today to rip their freaking head off and let them bleed." Within the first minute of the show's opening, you see several hits in which a kid's head whiplashes back. At this point, I had seen enough.

So let's go back to the Facebook conversation. Let me note that both my friend and I attended Permian High School, a football-mad school in Odessa, Texas that was the basis for the book and movie, "Friday Night Lights." On her Facebook page, my friend stated that NFL players need to acknowledge and accept the health risks when they sign those multi-million dollar contracts. She wants them to take responsibility for their choices and plan for their future without resorting constantly to lawsuits. Twenty-nine friends liked her comments and there were 13 responses (of which, five were mine) as of noon today.

Here are my thoughts about football and concussions at this point based on this week's breaking stories and that Facebook conversation:

  • The retired players who played prior to the mid-2000s deserve the financial settlement from the NFL. At the time they played, they weren't making exorbitant amounts of money; in fact, the average salary in 1982 was $90,000. Furthermore - and more importantly - they were misled about the repercussions of suffering head traumas. To get a good sense of this, watch PBS Frontline's League of Denial. As far as I'm concerned, what happened to these football players is the equivalent of what the tobacco industry did to my parents' generation as far as cigarettes - blow a lot of smoke on the truth so they could continue to succeed financially at the expense of others' health.
  • Current NFL players should realize the challenges to their cognitive health and take appropriate precautions in setting up their financial plans and make wise investments early. Whereas people with Alzheimer's often develop the condition in old age, players can develop CTE at a much earlier age. For instance, retired NFL All-Pro Junior Seau was in his early 40s when he committed suicide. In his autopsy, Seau's brain was found to have CTE. Another player who died of CTE was just 17 years of age.

Current players also need to be accountable for their actions on the field so they can protect each other from the damage that comes from these brutal hits. The rules of the game have started to move in this direction. Still, individual players need to realize that that those big hits - even if they occur in the playoffs and the the Super Bowl - could lead to a player's cognitive decline and, thus, ruin a life.

  • That brings me to Friday Night Tykes. I think those parents and coaches need a reality check They need to hear from retired players like Brett Favre and Bart Scott who have said they would not want their sons playing the sport. These parents and coaches need to spend some time with people who have developed Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to see what those hits may be doing to their sons. Trust me, as the daughter of someone who had Alzheimer's disease, it's a sobering visit. And finally, these coaches and parents need to talk to families of former professional players who are watching or have watched their loved one change in so many devastating ways - mentally and emotionally -- due to these head injuries.

Football is a big part of American culture. However, I think that a change in this culture needs to happen - and happen soon. I agree with my friend that the current players need to take accountability financially, but I'd also expand it to how they play the game. And equally of importance, parents and coaches such as those featured in Friday Night Tykes need to really think long and hard about what they want their sons' lives to be like, because - quite frankly - they are already putting their sons' cognitive health at risk. My question to them - Is it really worth it?

Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

Belasco, J. & Chan, L. (2014). San Antonio tykes cry, vomit for football glory on TV. San Antonio Express News.

Esquire (2014). Friday night tykes.

Farrar, D. (2014). Judge Anita Brody denies preliminary approval for NFL concussion settlement.

Kounang, N. (2012). Brain bank examines athletes' hard hits. CNN Health.

New York Times. (1982). Average N.F.L. salary is $90,102, survey says.

Sullivan, J. (2013). NFL players, families coming to grips of the dangers of repeat concussions. The Buffalo News.