Concussions in football: Are they really the problem?

Good afternoon BTSC. As we already know concussions are at the forefront of the issues facing the NFL today. And not just the NFL, but really the future of football as a whole. Countless articles and discussions have been raised about this, most of them detailing the scary consequences of repeated exposure to concussions. However, I've been wanting to write a little bit about this, particularly to explore another side of the issue.

This issue is unbelievably important and it's not going away any time soon. I was finally motivated to start writing this because of an article (thanks to for posting about this) regarding a high school district that is calling for a ban on school funded football programs.

Needless to say this may not be the first of these stories. And the detrimental effect it would have on the NFL could ultimately result in its demise. Should high schools across the nation, or even part of the nation stop funding football, we could see a dramatic decline in available talent at the pro level. Perhaps that is speculation, but it's a very real possibility down the road.

However I'm not here to discuss that issue, because that's a topic for another post. I've felt that concussions are hardly the only factor in the condition of former players and their outcomes. Junior Seau's untimely death has revived the discussion, and the class action lawsuit of former players against the NFL grows every day. The NFL continues trying to give off an image that denounces concussions and promotes player safety.

To argue that one specific thing is the cause of such complicated problems is in my opinion foolish and irresponsible. Ironically we're probably hurting our chances of finding the real solution to our problem. Why is it that some players can't remember who they are, but guys like Dick LeBeau are still some of the sharpest minds in the game? LeBeau certainly got a concussion or two over his career. And that is what we're going to discuss here. Are concussions really the problem? And can we solve these current problems by limiting concussions?

The media has certainly done a fine job of bringing this issue to light. By running with the newsworthy events surrounding the issue, and diseminating to us all the effects of concussions, we're all now much more educated than we were before. Certainly now ignorance is not a valid excuse. However concussions are perhaps the easiest of all the symptoms to target. Their existence is non-controversial, their effects undisputable, and anything related to them is negative.

But are concussions the only thing that matters? The media would probably have us think so. Again I feel that simply taking that at face value is a poor decision. There has to be more to the problems former players are having than simply getting hit on the head one too many times. We're seeing significant mental disorders and dysfunction in many former players. Junior Seau's suicide was a real surprise to us all and certainly not a normal act for a relatively healthy young person. I feel there are several key issues at play here.

Something I feel is often overlooked is that in order to judge the effects of a concussion on one's brain, you must know how the brain was before it was concussed. We apply tests to that effect in the short term. But looking at the long term, doesn't the same approach make sense? Shouldn't we perhaps take a look at this players past in order to find out what led them to this point?

Taking a look at Junior Seau's life history a little bit, you can start to wonder just how well put together he really was all along. For the record, this is not an indictment of the man, he was a fantastic player and a great teammate and his death is a loss for football fans everywhere. But we have to ask the tough questions. He was born in California, as the 5th child in his family. He was born to Samoan parents (from American Samoa) and only started speaking English at age 7. it's said that he often slept with his 4 brothers in the garage.

Now, just looking at that situation, we obviously don't know what his parents were totally like. It's great he had both of them around. But you can certainly argue that being 1 of 5 children from an immigrant family and sleeping in a garage is not the best start to anyone's life. Living in effectively two countries as a child, and having two parents working full time is not the best upbringing one could ask for. His parents both had two jobs each, ranging from factory worker to laundromat worker.

Again, I don't want to paint with a broad brush here, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that those types of difficult childhoods tend to have lasting effects on a person. It's not a death sentence but it certainly isn't optimal for development.

I couldn't find much about his academic performance in high school, it's clear that, good or bad, it was irrelevant due to his incredible play. This brings me to another point, one that applies to all football players. Most of these athletes, especially those in the NFL, were standouts in their high schools. These guys all have a shrine dedicated to them in the halls of their former educational facility. They were in many cases given some slack on the grades, and not expected to be brilliant mathematicians or scientists. But why shouldn't they be? Why do they only have to excel in one area, the least practical of all? They were rewarded for putting on a fantastic display on the field. But on the field skills do not translate to real life skills. And real life (should) last much longer than football. Our society places a high value on athletic accomplishments, which is fine when we also acknowledge academic pursuits. Unfortunately we seldom hold people to the same standard in both of those categories.

The consequences of this imbalance are seen when we look at players who find themselves bankrupt as a result of bad financial decisions throughout their career and retirement from the NFL. Can we automatically chalk this behavior up to having a few concussions? Why not instead consider the lack of meaningful education as a cause? Of course we can debate the reasons for this all day. But for me it's quite clear: Money. If a school football program said you had to have all As to get on the team, they'd lose an awful lot of players. And then they wouldn't sell tickets. Instead of addressing this critical issue we have chosen to focus on the obvious physical element: Concussions.

The recent string of suicides has been said to be linked to concussions. Of course it's an easy common denominator. Pretty much every NFL player has had a concussion at some point in his career whether we realize it or not. it's important to remember that not all concussions are as obvious as the ones sustained by Ryan Clark and Willis McGahee. Clinically speaking though, concussions are linked to more physical symptoms. One thing almost all suicide victims report is depression. Depression is a much more complex issue. There are many reasons why a person can become depressed, and often the person can't quite express why, he may even find his own depression irrational. There's a chemical imbalance involved. This imbalance is often brought on however by a difficult situation.

As I've had depressed family members I can say that it's typically a combination of surrounding social factors and a lack of personal satisfaction that generate depression in most cases. The factors are endless, and the solutions are just as varied. For many people though, they have to find some sort of fulfillment in their lives. This can be hard when your social situation has left you in unfamiliar waters.

Consider the case of an NFL player. For years you make good money, you're on top of the world. People look up to you, children want to BE you, and in general you're living a good life all while playing a game for a living. But when your career fades, as it does for everyone eventually, what are you left with? For some, the transition is remarkably difficult. And why wouldn't it be? One could imagine that as the realization creeps ever closer that you're no longer in the spotlight, no longer making the big bucks, a little bit of reality shock could set in. Players whose egos were stroked for years are now just another guy trying to survive. And if they failed at managing their finances, or got accustomed to a lavish lifestyle that they can no longer sustain, they may feel frustrated and helpless.

This is an area that is sorely lacking in the NFL: Personal psychological help. This transition is made no easier by the NFL's abandonment of older players. Add to that the general 'suck it up' nature of the game, and you'll find hardly any ex-player going to see a therapist. But perhaps that's all it would take to keep them from spiraling into a depressed suicidal state. The NFL needs to give this top priority in their care of the players. Unfortunately at this time this issue has never been brought up by the league.

As I mentioned at the outset, claiming that concussions are the only problem is irresponsible and dangerous. Limiting concussions may help the post-NFL lives of players, and it certainly can't hurt. I'm not saying that concussions DON'T have an impact on a player's mental health later in life, nor that they do no physical harm. They are clearly hazardous to one's longevity. However, to point the finger at them entirely is only endangering the players more. We need to spend more time looking at how these players got where they are, and what they're going to do after they've hung up the cleats. We may not be able to control their societal situation, but there are areas where the NFL can help their players and truly show that they care about player safety. Modifying the rules in half-assed ways to satisfy the sensationalist media only spits on the graves of the already deceased men who served the NFL loyally for so many years. Labeling concussions as the cause is an ignorant course that needs to be turned around. Thanks for reading everyone.

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