Fans’ fidelity unshaken by brain injury data

Imagine it, the kick-off’s in the air, the ball tumbling end-over-end through a sparkling blue sky as 110,000 cheering, stomping fans rise to their feet. The ball descends, a 19-year-old kid catches it and heads upfield as fast as he can. After five steps, he’s met by a 240-lb. second-string linebacker– another 19-year-old– tearing downfield with all the rage he can muster in order to impress his coach enough to be given a shot to start. The linebacker leaves his feet, launches his bulk into the air and smacks directly into the ball-carrier, laying him flat on the turf. Sounds like fun, right? The perfect way to spend an autumn Saturday?

Sure, except, what about the fact these two 19-year-olds risk their future brain health every time they step on the field? More and more information indicates not only that football can lead to traumatic brain injuries, but also that it causes that injury a lot more than previously thought. A well-publicized study published this summer in The American Journal of Medicine that tested 111 brains of former NFL players and found evidence of CTE in 110 of them, prompted us to look at that phenomena locally and from the fan’s perspective. Is a sport that creates devastating, lasting consequences really what we want to watch and support?

Everybody picks their own poison

Longtime Wolverines fans at the Coach And Four barbershop on State Street uniformly agree they won’t stop watching football because of the study. “Never thought about it,” says Coach And Four proprietor Jerry Erickson, who says he’s been a devoted U-M fan for 45 years. “Nobody’s going to stop playing football. Parents and players know the risk. They may have to gimp the rest of their lives, but nah, it doesn’t bother me. I grew up Up North. You gotta be tough. We had headaches. We never heard of concussions.”

It’s not that Erickson has no sympathy for the players’ plight. He’s cut the hair and gotten to know U-M football players (including Jim Harbaugh) for decades. He just believes people make their own choices and that if someone wants to chase the dream of becoming an NFL player, he’s going to support that choice. “Everybody chooses the sport they like playing,” he says. “It’s in the genes also. Some people die early, some don’t. Even if they smoke a lot. We all make our choices, bottom line. We’re not going to quit playing football. Or soccer. Why aren’t they talking about soccer? Everybody picks their own poison.”

Concerned, but not enough to stop watching

James Giacalone, a local realtor and frequent customer at Coach And Four, who also describes himself as a football fan for nearly half-a-century, is more willing to re-think longheld notions about the game, but ultimately says it’s up to players to decide if football’s worth the risk. “It’s a tough question,” he admits. “If these studies are as valid as they say, it would concern me, but if people are willing to chase the buck, it’s their business.”

He does believe schools have a responsibility to educate players about the potential hazards. “They ought to make an informed decision,” he says. “If players get a scholarship to go to college and go into it with their eyes wide open and they want to take the risk, it’s up to them.”

Carolyn Zimmerman, in from California to drop her son off at U-M and ensure he has a proper haircut, describes herself as well aware of the dangers of football, having watched several features about the issue on ESPN. She agrees if players choose to take the risk of playing, there’s no reason for fans to halt their enjoyment of the sport. “The concussion issue isn’t limited to just football,” she says. “A lot of non-contact sports lead to concussions. At least in the NFL, you’ve got doctors watching. There’s a level of risk to everything you do. If you don’t want to take the chance, play tennis.”

“If you’re worried about the risks,” another fan in the barbershop pipes up to a rousing chorus of laughter, “have your kid grow up to be a kicker.”

Reasons to Be Skeptical of the CTE Study

Jeremiah Freeman, an athletic trainer in U-M’s Neurosport Division, says there are valid reasons to examine the AJA study more carefully, and that there are still many questions in regard to understanding what causes CTE. While he notes the findings in the study are true results, he also says there’s a lot more still to be learned. “We don’t really know anything about CTE other than it exists,” he points out. “We don’t have a standard control group. We just don’t have brains to look at from a controlled population. We don’t know for sure if it occurs because of impact to the head.”

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative brain disease, often found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative brain disease, often found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

The AJA and other studies can’t offer definitive conclusions because there’s no current way to test for CTE in living brains. Thus, the samples tested in the AJA study come from brains donated by families of deceased athletes for whom there were likely already concerns of brain damage. “It’s not really a surprise that CTE is in these brains because we already suspected it would be,” Freeman says. “There just hasn’t been enough research yet.”

For Coaches, Caution is Paramount

For Russ Sansbury, an English teacher at Pioneer High School and first-year Assistant JV Football Coach, player safety is a big part of why he wanted to start coaching. “My stance is to at least care about the human being,” he says. “With regard to trauma to the head, if you’re coaching for the right reasons – which is to develop competent young men, to care more about players off the field than on the field – I think it definitely gives you an extra level of responsibility.”

He says the Pioneer staff follows a careful protocol that includes not only teaching players how to properly tackle without leading with their helmets, but also strict adherence to safety whenever a player might appear concussed. “I’m actually scared about it,” he says. “I err on the side of extreme caution. We just did a hitting drill and a guy said my head hurts. We immediately called the trainer and he’s sitting down. We have zero tolerance for, ‘hey, suck it up.’ I’m looking at how a kid gets up, is he dizzy, is he wobbly? It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we can do.”

Freeman believes the Michigan High School Athletics Association (MHSAA) has done a good job of trying to educate coaches, parents and athletes about the risks of brain trauma. “In a lot of schools, especially in Ann Arbor,” he says, “there are pre-season parent meetings and we often will have trainers or doctors present at the meetings to educate parents and athletes. Patient education has really improved.”

The NFL, for its part, is committing resources to trying to develop safer helmets. While entreaties from inventors and designers to produce a new kind of helmet have largely been ignored in the past, this year NFL owners have designated $60 million to be used for helmet research and design. Since different positions on the field face different kinds of potentially harmful situations, one goal is to move away from standard helmets for everyone (albeit with different facemasks) and have position-specific helmets available for league use by the 2020 season.

Dangers Beyond Head-to-Head Contact

A common misconception is that direct head-to-head contact is responsible for most of the brain trauma football players experience. While such collisions are certainly dangerous, even collisions that don’t involve head-to-head contact can cause the brain to jar inside the skull and delicate “white matter” fibers to pull and twist, contorting the brain’s complex wiring. A Stanford University study found a collegiate lineman can experience as many as 62 such collisions per game, each collision containing a G-force roughly equivalent to crashing a car traveling 30 mph directly into a wall.

“Helmets do a lot to protect your head,” Freeman explains, “but not your brain that sits inside your skull. A sharp change of direction at high velocity without any contact can cause a concussion. We’ll keep an eye on it, but there’s not any technology we’ve found yet that decreases the impact on concussion.”

While he hasn’t necessarily seen a decrease in participation in football and other contact sports, Freeman does say he’s fielding a lot more questions from concerned parents.

For Youth, CTE May Not Be The Only Brain Trauma Risk

Another long-term study by researchers at Boston University, released on September 19th, claims youth who play tackle football before age twelve experience more behavioral and cognitive problems later in life than those who start playing as teenagers. Through phone interviews and online surveys of 214 former football players now an average age of 51, researchers found players who participated in youth football before turning twelve had a twofold “risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive function” and a threefold risk of “clinically elevated depression scores.”

Robert Stern, one of the authors of the study, explained that the brain goes through “this incredible time of growth between the years and of 10 and 12, and if you subject the developing brain to repetitive head impacts, it may cause problems later in life.”

For Sansbury, the continuing spate of new information means football can’t continue to exist in its present form.

“Especially with the linemen, in order to protect them,” Sansbury adds, “the game’s going to have to be changed. Those are big bodies colliding. If you really want to 100% protect somebody, the game’s going to have to be altered. Two things scare me about that – money rules everything, and there’s still that testosterone-driven manly man, ‘you’re sissying up our game’ mentality. I played for many a year, I played through high school, and I wonder, what’s the percentage of people having problems? It’s always on my mind.”

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