Amid Super Bowl Fun, NFL Urged to Address Brain Damage Risk

January 30, 2009

When the question was posed — ever worry that the sport you love could ruin your brain? — Hines Ward shrugged it off as though it was nothing more than one of those pesky cornerbacks trying to keep him from catching a pass.

“It’s just a violent game,” Pittsburgh’s star receiver said Tuesday during Super Bowl media day in Tampa, when such serious issues are generally cast aside in favor of scantily clad TV hosts and other outrageous antics. “If you run into someone full speed with a head-to-head hit, something’s bound to give. Unfortunately, it’s your brain.”

Not long after Ward spoke, eight people gathered in a downtown Tampa hotel to discuss the latest evidence that football’s violent nature could be causing some serious health issues.

There was Ted Johnson, the former New England linebacker who claims repeated concussions sent his life into a downward spiral of drug abuse and a failed marriage. There were two wives of ex-NFL players, one of whom was discovered to have had severe brain damage after dying young, the other requiring around-the-clock care when dementia set in while he was in his 50s. There were assorted medical experts to describe the potentially devastating effects of taking repeated blows to the head, the kind that Ward and several other Super Bowl players dismissed as just an unfortunate part of the game.

“I’m not going to think about it right now,” said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has sustained at least two concussions in NFL games and another in a motorcycle accident. “I’m going to live this day to the fullest.”

That number pales in comparison to teammate Troy Polamalu, who’s had at least seven concussions in his career.

Researchers at Boston University released enlarged photos of the brain scan taken after the death of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers player Tom McHale, the victim, at age 45, of an accidental drug overdose. There were dense, brown patches where healthy cells would have been, a discovery that Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who specializes in degenerative brain diseases, described as “extraordinarily abnormal.”

Nearby, McHale’s widow, Lisa, struggled to hold back tears.

“Eight months ago, I lost my best friend, my college sweetheart and my husband of 18 years,” she said later, her eyes still red. “There’s no way to put into words the sheer magnitude of that loss to me, to our three sons, to our families, to anyone who had the pleasure of knowing Tom during his lifetime. He was a tremendous man. Not a day goes by, not one day, where I don’t miss him tremendously.”

While drugs took McHale’s life, his wife suspects that his frustrating inability to cope with his addictions may be traced to those disturbing images of the rain, a condition known as “chronic traumatic encephalopathy.” It can lead to memory loss, emotional problems, erratic behavior, depression and a loss of impulse control.

Lisa McHale assumed it was the drugs. In hindsight, she wonders if he may have been incapable of taking the necessary steps to lead a clean life — largely because of repeated blows to the head during his football career.

“He was working as hard as he could to do the right thing,” she said. “It was most crushing to him that he couldn’t be who he was trying to be. He was very frustrated and very confused by what was happening to him.”

Johnson has become the face of the issue, a one-time stalwart of the Patriots defense who believes repeated concussions left his brain permanently damaged. Now, he wants to get the word out to others: Recognize the warning signs, take the proper steps to prevent serious damage, worry about something more than just the next game, the next hit.

“I kind of liken it to NASCAR racers, who don’t like going to funerals or don’t like going to the hospital because they don’t like being reminded what could happen to them,” Johnson said. “It’s the same thing with football players. We don’t want to know what could potentially happen to us down the road.”

The NFL called a summit in 2007 to hear from a wide range of experts on the possibility of repeated concussions causing the sort of long-term damage found in the brains of McHale and five others ex-players who died by the age of 50. Commissioner Roger Goodell has issued directives to improve screenings when someone is hurt during a game and stepped up fines for helmet-to-helmet hits.

Still, that hasn’t prevented some truly brutal blows just in the past month or so. In Pittsburgh’s final regular-season game, Roethlisberger went down in a heap and had to be taken off the field on a cart. The next time he tried to put on his helmet, it felt too small — yes, his head was actually enlarged after taking such a fierce blow.

Then, near the end of the AFC championship game, Baltimore’s Willis McGahee caught a pass over the middle, turned to run and was crushed by Steelers free safety Ryan Clark. McGahee was knocked cold and Clark still doesn’t remember the hit.

Not that he sees anything wrong with that.

“When you’re coherent, it’s a good feeling,” Clark quipped. “You feel like you’re helping the team out in some way. When you can’t remember it, I guess you don’t have any feeling at all.”

He sees no reason for the NFL to take additional steps to make the game safer.

“If they do anything else, we’re not going to be able to tackle people,” Clark said. “I’d like to see them stop talking about it on TV so much. It gets so much press when you see things like (his hit on McGahee). People are beginning to believe it’s a barbaric sport.”

While BU has brought together some of the top experts at its Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the NFL has launched its own study on the long-term effects of repeated concussions. The results are expected in 2010.

“Concussions are serious injuries and our focus is on prevention, treatment and ongoing research,” league spokesman Greg Aiello said. “We have more resources than ever devoted to the care of this injury and to the education of players and their families, as well as coaches and team personnel. Our medical staffs take a cautious and conservative approach to managing concussions, including expanded use of neuropsychological testing and return-to-play guidelines. We support all research that would further the scientific and medical understanding of this injury, which affects thousands of people, athletes and non-athletes alike, every year.”

Johnson and others said it’s equally important for the NFL Players Association to take a lead role. Union officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“I put a lot of the onus on them,” Johnson said. “Our own union should put more emphasis on its former players.

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