Is football worth the risk of serious head injury?

  • Thu Jul 1st, 2010 8:35pm
  • Sports

By John Boyle Herald Writer

Around this time a year ago, a conversation with a friend and fellow sports writer turned into a phone call, then a few more, then a story about former Seahawks linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski and his former Harvard roommate and their study of brain injuries in sports.

What started as a story on a former Seahawk ended up changing, to a degree anyway, the way I look at football. Then this week, we learned more disturbing news about head trauma in football. Former Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry, who died last year after either falling or jumping from a moving truck, had a form of brain damage known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Once thought to be an ailment exclusive to punch-drunk boxers, CTE is showing up in athletes from numerous sports, football in particular.

Think about that. At 26 years old, Henry, who wasn’t known as a concussion-prone player, already had brain damage.

I’ll admit it, I’m conflicted. And really, you should be too. How are we supposed to love a sport that may be a lot more dangerous than any of us previously thought it to be? How can we stand up and scream for those jarring hits when we’re beginning to understand the consequences?

In 2007, Kacyvenski’s college roommate and teammate, Chris Nowinski, started the Sports Legacy Institute, which aims to solve what he calls the “Sports concussion crisis.” SLI partnered with Boston University to study CTE, which cannot be detected by any current tests, and therefore can only be found after death if the athlete’s brain is donated.

With the help of Kacyvenski, SLI has signed up roughly 100 NFL players and over 350 total athletes to donate their brains to be studied. Henry’s brain was studied by Dr. Julian Bailes and Dr. Bennet Omalu of the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia University, not SLI and Boston University, but I still felt compelled to check in with Nowinski.

For Nowinski, knowledge and research have taken away his ability to enjoy football. Like everyone else, he was bothered by the Henry news, but not entirely surprised. At the Sports Legacy Institute, they have seen cases of CTE in athletes as young as 18, and of the 13 NFL athletes’ brains they have studied, all 13 have had CTE.

“It was six, seven years ago that I stopped enjoying watching football,” said Nowinski, who was a professional wrestler until concussions ended his career. “It used to be that the big hit popped me out of my seat and I’d get all jazzed up, and now I just get depressed. I don’t watch many games. I watch as a researcher now, not as a fan.”

The news isn’t all bad, however. Improvements are being made. Perhaps most importantly, the NFL has pulled its head out of the sand and is admitting that head injuries are a concern. When I talked to Nowinski a year ago, he sounded frustrated with the way the NFL was handling what he called a concussion crisis. This time around, he had positive things to say about the league.

“I think things have dramatically improved,” he said. “Shockingly improved.”

Nowinski noted rule changes disallowing crack-back blocks, hits to the head of defenseless players, and the league’s increased effort to educate players as positive changes he has seen.

“On the concussion side, they’re doing better,” Nowinski said. “Much, much better. They’ve closed almost all the major gaps that we’ve asked for.”

But all the support in the world won’t change the fact that football is an inherently a violent sport. So what are football fans supposed to do? It’s not realistic to assume that people will stop watching. Football, the NFL in particular, is king in this country, and the news about Henry won’t change that.

A year ago I asked Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu, one of the early players to sign up to donate his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute, if he was worried about brain injuries. I suspect he and many players feel the same way now as they did before hearing about Henry — that the risk of long-term damage is worth the short-term rewards.

“You’ve only got one life to live man, that’s how I feel about it,” Tatupu said. “… I know that I’m helping my family now because of my situation with how well compensated we are for what we do. It means the most to me to help them out, so I’m not worried about my long-term health as of right now. It’s life. I know I love this game very much, so I’m not too worried about it right now.”

Still, Henry’s death and subsequent findings of CTE got the attention of some athletes. It’s one thing to hear that a 40-something former player had brain damage, but it’s far more eye-opening to learn that a 26-year old already had a damaged brain.

Seahawks receiver Sean Morey, a co-chairman of the players association’s brain-injury committee, told the New York Times that the news on Henry rattled him: “You have to ask yourself how many are playing the game today that have this and don’t even know about it.”

But again, what do we do about it? Will you stop watching football? Will I stop writing about it? No and no. But aside from making sure football players young and old know the risks, what else is there to do? One thing Nowinski would like to see happen is a drastic reduction, if not elimination of hitting in practice.

“It becomes very clear that the human body was never meant to play sports in this way, which means that quickly we have to change how we play sports like football,” Nowinski said. “Right now we’re hoping to radically change especially how we practice. Studies show that most of the hits people are taking are happening in practice. … We have pitch counts in baseball, but yet we don’t count how many times a kid takes a 50-G shot to the head.”

It would be an inaccurate to leap to the conclusion that CTE directly or indirectly led to Henry’s death. As Nowinski points out, we shouldn’t turn CTE into a blanket out for behavioral problems in any athlete who ever played a contact sport. Even so, Henry’s is one of several athletes who died under bizarre circumstances and were later discovered to have CTE.

Former Steelers lineman Justin Strzelckyk, started having mental problems in his 30s, and in 2004 he led state troopers on a long chase before dying in a head-on collision with a tanker truck. John Grimsley, a Pro-Bowl linebacker for the Oilers, developed memory problems in his 40s and accidentally killed himself while cleaning a gun at the age of 45. Former wrestling star Chris Benoit, a friend of Nowinski’s, shocked friends and colleague when he murdered his wife and son, then killed himself.

Whether Henry’s death changes things remains to be seen. Perhaps it will open a few more eyes and lead to a few more changes to make football safer. But as long as the game includes the violent hits that help make it America’s most popular sport, we’ll have to keep asking ourselves if the thrills are worth the long-term risks.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.