Sunday, November 10, 2013

Football causes degenerative brain disease: NFL pays $800 million to make the problem go away

The National Football League (NFL) just settled a court case brought by former NFL players for nearly $800 million. At issue is the degenerative brain disease, Chronic Trauma Encephalopathy (CTE). As is usually the case with an out-of-court settlement, the league admitted no wrongdoing. This will make it more difficult for those players who will sue in the future.

Although $800 million seems like a large sum, it may only be the tip of an iceberg. The settlement covered only retired NFL players and did not include possible penalties for Riddell, which provided helmets for the NFL That case is still pending. Another, separate lawsuit charges that the NFL and its helmet supplier, Riddell, knew of the dangers of life-threatening brain disease that are caused by using the helmet in the NFL.

CTE causes dementia similar to Alzheimer's. It also causes depression, violent mood swings and suicidal urges. Unlike Alzheimer's, athletes with CTE are sill young. Junior Seau was 43 when he killed himself in 2012. An autopsy performed by the National Institute of Health (NIH) on Seau confirmed that he was suffering from CTE.

New diagnostic methods can reveal CTE while the subjects are still living. Using these methods, researchers at UCLA have examined 9 former NFL players and announced that at least nine have CTE. Two of the nine were all-star Mark Duper and hall-of-famer Tony Dorsett. Duper is 53. Dorsett is 59. CTE, like Alzheimer's, is debilitating but not life-threatening. The NFL may pay $50,000 a year to care for each ex-player who contracts CTE.

The NFL is extremely profitable. It should have no trouble paying the settlement in future cases. It can also require players to sign an injury waiver, which relieves a team of responsibility for any pre-existing injuries. The league has also made some rule changes that make head-to-head collisions less likely, although it may yet turn out that softer, repeated blows to the head are just as dangerous as actual concussions.

The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) faces a more serious problem. Four athletes have filed a suit alleging negligence on the part of the NCAA when it comes to handling concussions.  Concussions are a serious problem at the college level. Collegiate athletes suffered 29,000 concussions between 2004 and 2009. Brain trauma can cause lifelong problems and the NCAA may be liable for all of it.

Parents are likely to prevent their children from playing football if they believe their children may suffer irreparable brain damage. Universities have faced criticism for years about placing so much emphasis on football instead of academic performance. Lawsuits and fears over CTE may lead many colleges to abandon football.

There is a serious ethical problem as well. The NFL makes money from hard hits and life-threatening plays. In the past, the league--along with coaches, commentators, and fans--has been able to excuse such violence by saying the effects are only temporary, like a broken collarbone or a twisted ankle. With the new discoveries about how every hit to the head, no matter how slight, may contribute to CTE and an early death, the league and its fans can no longer dismiss such plays lightly.

The popularity of sports is evanescent. The accumulation of problems with football should change the game radically in the next decade. The game itself may not survive the changes.

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