NFL concussions

Posted: September 30, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, Career Calling looks beyond jobs and career in “Sabbath.”]

Can Football Survive?

Last week I attended a panel discussion on football and head injuries that was sponsored by the Chicagoside sport website.  Panelists included Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander, former Chicago Bear Hunter Hillenmeyer, former Harvard football player and professional wrestler Chistopher Nowitzki, and film producer Steve James.  Nowitzki and James have collaborated in creating a documentary film called Head Games that examines head injuries in several sports.

All of the panelists expressed a sense of conflict.  They are football fans who understand the damage caused to those who play the game.  Hillenmeyer summed up the problem by telling his own story.  Over the course of his NFL career, the former Bears’ linebacker was diagnosed with 5 concussion, including the last one that ended his career.  However, according to some experts he has met, Hillenmeyer may have experienced hundreds of concussions.  Part of the problem is defining what a concussion is.  The damage caused by head injuries can only be diagnosed after a person is dead.  We know there is a problem.  We can’t say with certainty what it is.

Chris Nowitzki, whose wrestling career was ended by concussions, has becoming an advocate for education and reform in sports.  Like Hillenmeyer, he wants players to be more aware of the risks they are taking.  In the case of youth sports, he advocates abolishing take football for children.  Clips from Head Games, which is based on Nowitzki’s book, depict pre-teen children crumbling from tackles that would impress NFL scouts.  What do such hits do to the brain of a child?  Nowitzki scoffed that we don’t let little league pitchers throw curveballs because of the risk of arm injuries.  However, we show less concern about hits and tackles that can damage a child’s brain.

Rick Telander was the most pessimistic of the panelists.  Where Hillenmeyer and Nowitzki believed that better rules could be put in place for treating players with concussions, Telander saw the problem as unavoidable: the head is in the middle of the body, which means it will receive blows in almost any kind of tackle or block.  Last year, Telander wrote a great series on his former team mates at Northwestern and how they have been impacted by head injuries.  He knows the problem and seems to see no positive way to deal with it.

As I’ve written in the past about the problem of concussions, I’m a football fan.  I’ve whooped and hollered when a player on a team I root for lays a vicious hit on an opponent.  That’s harder to do now given what we know about concussions.  It’s harder now because of the players who have killed themselves, including former Bears’ safety Dave Dureson, who shot himself in the chest so his brain could be preserved for testing.

I still watch football and love the game.  But it’s harder. It’s easy to say players understand and accept the risk. But what about us fans who love this violent game?  We buy tickets and jerseys.  We make football the highest rated program (and most expensive program) on TV.  We look at the player lying still on the field.  We watch the medical staff strap him to a board and apply the neck brace.  Once the player is off the field, we go back to the game and wait for the next big play, which is often a big hit.  What is our responsibility as fans?  How long can we accept a game that destroys lives?