Af­ter decades of de­nial, NFL is tak­ing con­cus­sions se­ri­ously

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS -

NFL train­ing camps are open­ing across the coun­try this week, much to the de­light of foot­ball-starved fans. Along with the fun this sea­son, though, comes a se­ri­ous mes­sage about a se­ri­ous is­sue the NFL tried for way too many years to ig­nore.

“Repet­i­tive brain in­jury, when not treated promptly and prop­erly, may cause per­ma­nent dam­age to your brain,” warns a new poster that will be dis­played in all 32 NFL locker rooms.

Quite a change from just a few years ago, when the NFL all but dis­missed mount­ing con­cerns about con­cus­sions and their long-term ef­fects. The league even trot­ted out doc­tors to say there was no de­fin­i­tive con­nec­tion be­tween con­cus­sions and brain dam­age.

Now play­ers have the in­for­ma­tion right in front of them: Con­cus­sions can lead to ev­ery­thing from me­mory loss to de­pres­sion to dementia.

“It’s a leap for­ward and it doesn’t hold any­thing back,” said Chris Nowin­ski, a for­mer col­lege foot­ball player and pro­fes­sional wrestler who is co-di­rec­tor of a trauma study cen­ter at Bos­ton Uni­ver­sity and helped with the poster. “It clearly is a change in the think­ing of the NFL. We’re all mov­ing in the same di­rec­tion fi­nally.”

That change in think­ing came un­der new com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell, who should get at least part of the credit for rec­og­niz­ing the prob­lem and deal­ing with it.

Though the change came grudg­ingly at first, the NFL now ap­pears se­ri­ous about try­ing to do some­thing about what was one of the dirty lit­tle se­crets of pro­fes­sional foot­ball.

It won’t help play­ers from the past who died young or were left brain-dam­aged be­cause of re­peated con­cus­sions. But it might save some lives and a lot of pain for play­ers in the fu­ture.

“The NFL has had its four stages of grief: de­nial, more de­nial, some level of recog­ni­tion and now re­search,” New York con­gress­man An­thony Weiner said.

To Good­ell’s credit, he’s now mov­ing fast on an is­sue that ef­fects mil­lions of young ath­letes and is even more crit­i­cal in a league built largely on the ex­cite­ment of vi­o­lent col­li­sions.

Shortly af­ter a sur­vey of 160 NFL play­ers by The As­so­ci­ated Press last sea­son showed nearly one-fifth had ei­ther hid­den a con­cus­sion or played while un­der the ef­fects of one, Good­ell is­sued stricter in­struc­tions for when play­ers would be al­lowed to re­turn to games or prac­tices af­ter head in­juries.

Then a few more things hap­pened. Two doc­tors whom crit­ics ac­cused of try­ing to help the NFL min­i­mize the af­fects of con­cus­sions re­signed from a med­i­cal com­mit­tee, and the league started a data­base on con­cus­sion in­juries. At the scout­ing com­bine this year, all 329 play­ers were given a base­line brain ac­tiv­ity exam for the first time.

Mean­time, the NFL do­nated $1 mil­lion to the Bos­ton Uni­ver­sity cen­ter — with no strings at­tached — to help re­searchers study the af­fects of brain in­juries. More than 200 ath­letes from var­i­ous sports have pledged to do­nate their brains to the cen­ter for study.

“It’s been a huge prob­lem for decades, but never have there been sci­en­tists who have com­mit­ted to solve the prob­lem,” said Nowin­ski, who suf­fered six con­cus­sions in his ca­reer. “Now that we have those re­sources I ex­pect huge ad­vances.”

It’s a se­ri­ous sub­ject, as the heart-wrench­ing sto­ries told by for­mer play­ers and their fam­ily mem­bers be­fore Congress last year demon­strated. The fact the NFL took so long to rec­og­nize it as such is a dis­grace.

Now the league has a sec­ond chance. As a re­sult, play­ers may live longer and more pro­duc­tive lives be­cause of it.

Mel Evans

Philadel­phia Ea­gles tight end L.J. Smith suf­fered a con­cus­sion af­ter a hard hit by the At­lanta Fal­cons’ Lawyer Mil­loy last Oc­to­ber. Mil­loy was flagged for un­nec­es­sary rough­ness.

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