NFL facing the truth about head injuries

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010; 7:24 PM

While we've been obsessing over LeBron James's decision and Brett Favre's indecision, a real story - one of staggering importance - has pretty much been ignored. It's a story of the NFL finally facing the truth about the frightening nature of head injuries, a story that could one faraway day lead football down the same path as boxing, one that has already persuaded me to ban my son from ever playing organized football.

There's been precious little angst or public discussion to this point even though America's current national pastime, professional football, is very quietly trying to figure out what to do about the biggest crisis the sport has ever faced: head injuries. The NFL, less than two weeks ago, produced a poster warning players of the dangers of concussions to the point of admitting that multiple head injuries can lead to permanent brain damage.

The posters, headlined with the single word "CONCUSSION," now hang in every locker room in the league and appear to be the equivalent of the Surgeon General's warning on every single cigarette package that smoking can kill you.

This reflects a stunning reversal by the NFL on the severity of concussions and comes on the heels of various academic studies that have produced conclusive findings, not to mention the revelation that the late Chris Henry, a wide receiver who played only five NFL seasons and was never determined to have had a concussion, suffered from a form of degenerative brain damage caused by multiple hits to the head.

One would think this would be enough to scare at least the families of every young football player in America and start a national examination of just how big a health hazard football is. Yet, the stories have been, so far anyway, a collective footnote.

What we're in is a national denial. Nobody wants to hear that football is so dangerous that the NFL is now asking players to not only report their own head injuries but to turn in teammates they suspect are exhibiting symptoms of concussions. Nobody wants to hear that former NFL players suffer from Alzheimer's and other memory-related diseases, headaches and other neurological problems at a rate many times higher than the national population. Football, perhaps more than anything else in the culture, is to be celebrated, not examined too closely, lest we freak out about what we find.

What players are finding this preseason is a new set of rules that have introduced caution, an about-face policy that runs away from past practices and warns players in stark language about the kinds of neurological problems that can result from concussions.

David Pollack, a three-time all-American and first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2005, now hosts a radio sports-talk show in Atlanta and calls college football games for ESPN. Four years ago, at the beginning of his second NFL season, Pollack suffered a broken sixth cervical vertebrae while making a tackle. He wasn't paralyzed, thankfully, but the injury ended his career.

"It's a weird, weird topic," Pollack said in a conversation about concussions last week. "It's a gladiator sport, and no matter the injury we want to be back in the game. ... Intellectually, you know it's scary. Practically, I can say this: I bet you it doesn't scare guys while they're playing. When you barricade yourself in that world you make your responsibility to your teammates your priority.

"I don't remember a lot of things, dates, memories. I thank God I broke my neck and had to get out of football when I did. I actually think that when I see the older players, some of the things they suffer from and think, 'Wow.' "

If you successfully introduce this subject to any gathering of football sycophants, one of them is certain to suggest that these injuries are the result of the violent hits that can only be caused by players as big and as fast as professionals, that none of this pertains to high school kids, which Pollack scoffs at, going to back to his own hits in high school. The New York Times, which has reported extensively on this topic, quoted current Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth as saying, "Ninety-nine percent of the people who put on helmets don't get the payback we do, but they're taking the same risks. [The warnings are] probably more valuable to them than it is to a lot of us."

Given what we've learned recently, that the trauma and the long-term effects begin in high school, if not earlier, I told Pollack that my son, Matthew, who is 2, simply won't be allowed to play organized football. The risk is too great, and to what end? When I asked Pollack, knowing what he knows and having experienced such a serious injury, whether he'll allow his son Nicholas, 2 years old, to play organized football, he paused.

"I struggle to answer that," he said. "My goal? For him to hold a golf club in his hand. I don't know if I can stop him, and I won't push him to play football. Funny thing is, here I am doing college football games for ESPN. I loved the camaraderie, the friendships. But I'd definitely be okay if he doesn't play."

So even though nobody believes for one second, today, that football in America could be in any kind of jeopardy, we have to wonder what could happen in 10 years when parents have an additional decade of research detailing the effects of cognitive issues confronting another generation of former football players. If a sportswriter and former NFL player steer their sons clear of organized football, what might that say long-range about the game's viability? What happens in 20, 25 years when the research on brain injuries at the youth football level piles so high parents simply can't ignore it?

There is a sporting precedent. For the first 60 years of the 20th century, prize fighting trailed only baseball in popularity in America. The heavyweight champion was often the most celebrated athlete in the country.

Boxing, the original gladiator sport, has now all but disappeared and head injuries, some resulting in deaths in the ring, played some part. Yes, there were plenty of social and cultural factors unique to the fight game which led to the demise of boxing, but so did, among others, the 1982 death in the ring of Duk Koo Kim, and Howard Cosell's on-air soliloquy about how horrified he was over the sport's brutality.

Just as pro football now has introduced new safeguards, boxing adopted its major reforms, including cutting bouts from 15 rounds to 12 and allowing referees, not just ring physicians, to halt one-sided fights.

Football, college and pro, is so beloved it's almost impossible to imagine the sport will be threatened in the less than 30 years it took to essentially kill off prize fighting. The game holds such an exalted place in today's culture, and high schools across the country are stocked with enough young footballers that replacing one fallen player after another is a given, as was the case with ancient gladiators.

But unless someone comes up with a miracle helmet to stop this damage, the NFL's new warnings and the gradual realization that very serious injury results from football's inescapable collisions are the first steps toward more bad news most of us would just rather ignore.

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