Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Modest Proposal to Curb Cognitive Deficits in the NFL and other High Contact Sports

Last Tuesday I watched the PBS Frontline/ESPN documentary on concussions in the NFL called League of Denial.  It detailed the struggles that Hall of Fame Center Mike Webster had after he played in Pittsburgh for 15 years and in Kansas City for one year.  I can't embed the documentary here there is a clip from a different documentary above.  It can be watched in it's entirety at their website here.  Webster ended up homeless and died of a heart attack in 2002 at age 50.  The autopsy showed plaques in his brain  and other NFL player like Terry Long and Junior Seau similar to that of dementia patients.

Frontline has been cataloging reported concussions in the NFL over the last two years and the positions with the most reported injuries are cornerback and wide receiver.  Since players are getting bigger, faster, and stronger while the brain is just as fragile, as I discussed in my post on concussions, the problem is a difficult one to deal with as fans like those hits.

One proposal I have is that sports with a high level of contact such as football, boxing, soccer, rugby, and hockey (all of these sports have players with deficits later in life) have mandatory retirement ages of around 35.  As we age it is harder for our brains to recover from injuries.  Webster and Seau played until almost 40. True the documentary did present cases of high school and college age players with cognitive deficits and plaques in their brains like Webster's and Seau's and not all players have these problems so this is not a cure all by any means.  All of the players would have to be monitored for deficits and other risk factors for the symptoms like Webster's and Seau's need to be identified.  Players such as Jim Otto often have other health problems long after their playing days are over.  

I am sure players (especially stars like Peyton Manning) and fans wont like the retirement idea because it may render the career records of players like Brett Farve, Jerry Rice, and Emmitt Smith untouchable.   I know that Farve and Rice played into their 40's and Smith played until 35 and do not seem to be having problems now but they may be having health problems now that they're not talking about.

The NFL may not like the idea at first but it would save them money in the long run in salaries. It would open up more opportunities for younger players.  In the lockout three years ago the players union successfully prevented the league from extending the season to 18 games so it can adapt.  


The Colbert Report
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The authors of League of Denial appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss their book.  I had to dig on their site to find this interview.  Was Viacom pressured by the NFL not to put this clip on the main page for the episode?  The clip below was put on the main page.

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  1. I'm afraid your proposal may be too modest. I don't have the data, but I suspect only a small percentage of NFL players remain active past 35, and I'm not aware of any evidence that football players are more likely to suffer concussions during their declining years.

    The responsibility for the current unacceptable situation is shared by all people who derive entertainment from watching men deliberately injure one another. Therefore, I make the following immodest proposal: Each year, randomly select 100 people from among those who have watched at least one football game, hockey game or boxing match that year. In a public ceremony, line them up and have one of baseball's greatest sluggers—for now, I suggest Big Papi—whack each of them full force on the back of the head with a baseball bat.

    The spectacle would, of course, be televised. I'm sure there would be no problem finding sponsors.

    Please see:

    1. Thanks for your input Lloyd. I said an age of around 35. Many marquee players like Peyton Manning, Brett Farve, and Jerry Rice play until close to the age of 40. Younger players can recover from hits better than older ones. I'm not saying my method is perfect. Other monitoring will be needed.