America at Large: Concussion dangers hitting home in NFL

Numerous big-name players are taking matters into own hands and quitting game

D’Brickashaw Ferguson (in green) of the New York Jets in action against the New England Patriots. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images

D’Brickashaw Ferguson (in green) of the New York Jets in action against the New England Patriots. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images

 

After watching Will Smith’s Concussion last December, New York Jets’ offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson wrote a thoughtful essay for Sports Illustrated about how the movie affected him. Amongst other emotions, Ferguson confessed to being astounded at the NFL and feeling betrayed by those in power who did not have the best interests of players at heart. While admitting his own naivety regarding the deleterious impact of so many on-field collisions, he also wondered rather poignantly about whether he had already suffered enough hits to make brain damage part of his own future.

When Ferguson subsequently announced his retirement last week, after 10 seasons in which he didn’t miss a game through injury and had no diagnosed concussions, many, inevitably, saw a link between his reaction to the film and the timing of his final bow.

The 32-year-old hasn’t confirmed this but given that he walks away when, despite waning powers, he could draw down at least $5 million(€4.4 million) for one more campaign, it’s easy to surmise as much.

With career earnings of $67 million, Ferguson can afford to put his physical before his financial health; the problem for the NFL is more players, in far less advantageous positions, are opting to do the same.

Lingering vision

Just 23, AJ Tarpley’s rookie season with the Buffalo Bills was marred by two concussions, one in training camp that he successfully hid from team doctors, the other against the Jaguars that caused lingering vision and nerve problems.

Having researched what these third and fourth concussions of his sporting life meant for his long-term prognosis, Tarpley took some time to think it over, and duly decided a job as a linebacker that paid him $500,000 a year was no longer worth it.

Just over a year has passed since Chris Borland sent shockwaves through the NFL when he retired after a single, very promising campaign with the San Francisco 49ers, citing concerns about what the game might do to his brain as the primary reason. Like Tarpley, like so many others throughout the league, here was a linebacker who disguised symptoms and played through concussion for fear of losing his place on the roster.

“I just thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? Is this how I’m going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I’ve learned and know about the dangers?’” said Borland. “I just want to live a long, healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”

Borland and Tarpley are not household names but between their two departures, the NFL has also seen a host of big stars walk away while still in their primes. In the past few weeks alone, Detroit Lions’ wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Seattle Seahawks’ running back Marshawn Lynch, New England Patriots’ linebacker Jerod Mayo and Green Bay Packers’ defensive tackle BJ Raji have retired. None cited concussion as a factor but the impression grows that in the face of increasingly disturbing evidence more and more players are coming down on the cautionary side of the risk/reward equation.

All of this is backgrounded by more troubling revelations about the NFL’s handling of the problem. Last month, the New York Times published an in-depth investigation, alleging that, in the league’s first serious research into the issue, it had deliberately omitted more than 100 diagnosed concussions from a study in order to give the impression head injuries of that particular type weren’t actually that common between 1996 and 2001.

The Times also pointed out that the NFL deployed some of the same lobbyists, lawyers and consultants used by Big Tobacco, not a good look for an institution being accused of covering up something that was effectively killing players. With typical heavy-handedness, the most popular sport in the country responded with a massive advertising splurge about how much it cared about player welfare. But, most significantly, the newspaper hasn’t recanted any of the allegations.

In the midst of that particular storm, Jerry Jones, the, ahem, colourful owner of the Dallas Cowboys, questioned the NFL’s wisdom in finally admitting (just a few weeks back!) that science proved a link between gridiron and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), the brain disease found in 90 of 94 former NFL players autopsied as part of a study.

“No, that’s absurd,” said Jones. “There’s no data that in any way creates a knowledge. There’s no way that you could have made a comment that there is an association and some type of assertion . . . And in this particular case, we all know how medicine is. Medicine is evolving. I grew up being told that aspirin was not good. I’m told that one a day is good for you.”

Wilful ignorance

The spectacular, wilful ignorance of Jones and the NFL’s history of truth-denial bolsters the belief that the more players learn about the inherent dangers the more of them are likely to retire early. Yet, even amid the growing mountain of medical testimony (the very latest report found a precursor of CTE in 40 per cent of living players tested), athletes will always find a way to justify taking the field.

“I fear the unavoidable truth is that playing football has placed me in harm’s way, and I am not yet sure of the full extent of what it might cost me,” wrote Ferguson. “And yet, would do it all again, I would.”

Plenty more are still willing to make that same bargain. For now.

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