Science is finally making some headway in figuring out what concussions do to people over a lifetime. Among the major professional sports, this problem has been particularly present in the NFL, where studies now show that at least 60% of former players had one or more concussions in their careers. More important, players who suffered from three or more concussions in their careers are nearly twenty times more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s and other similar diseases than individuals who have never suffered a concussion. Rates of depression also skyrocket in the frequently concussed.
Following a congressional hearing in 2009 that compared the NFL’s stance on concussions to the tobacco industry’s stance on lung cancer in the 1990s, the NFL instated a few rule changes that would limit a player’s ability to quickly return to play following a concussion diagnosis. They also produced a series of posters that attempt to warn players of the long-term effects of concussions, using words like “depression” and “early onset of dementia.”
But very little has changed. There are still very limited standards for football helmets, and it is not entirely clear what could be done to prevent the damage done by one of the most common causes of concussions anyway: a sharp deceleration of the brain inside the skull. Other times the blow that even caused the damage can be frighteningly difficult to determine. Also, as we have discussed before, it’s almost impossible to alter the rules of the game to realistically reduce the prevalence of brain jarring hits.
It boggles the mind why the NFL Players’ Association didn’t use recent science as stronger leverage during the lockout. In my opinion, pride probably had a lot to do with it. But as more and more NFL players age, it will become increasingly clear what’s really going on in the heads of all those concussion victims. And if the NFL doesn’t do something about it now, it may end up taking it through the teeth in the courtroom sometime in the near future. Especially if it knew about what was happening all along.