Kids, Head Injuries and the NFL
By Dan Rather
August 9, 2010
It was a 1950's version of Friday Night Lights. A Texas high
school football game. As a skinny end, it was my job on
defense to stop "power sweeps." Offense -- blocking and pass
catching -- were my strong suits, if I had any. But this team
was eating us up with their end sweeps. The coach hauled me
off the bench and said between clenched teeth a version of,
"Get in there and knock down their blocking convoys so our
defensive backs can tackle the ball carrier!"
Next play, here they came. A big pulling guard running full-
tilt lowered his head as I lowered mine and we crashed into
each other helmet-to-helmet. It felt like I'd been hit by a
locomotive. Stars danced around in my head, jackhammer-like
pain throbbed and I couldn't focus my eyes for a bit. The big
guard didn't seem to be in very good shape either.
Time out was called. The water boys and a couple of student
trainers came on the field. "You okay?" and "Yup" was about
all that was said. Time in, next play and the game ground on.
That was then, this is now. Some of the equipment, rules and
medical awareness have changed. But the ethos of football has
All of this came to mind recently while working another in a
series of investigative reports about concussions in sports.
Not just in football, but in baseball, basketball, soccer,
hockey, volleyball, gymnastics and cheerleading. And not just
among men and boys, but increasing among girls and women.
The National Institutes of Health has declared that we are in
the midst of a "national epidemic" of concussions and other
head injuries, especially among the young.
With football, where so many concussions -- many of them
undiagnosed and untreated -- occur, the professional National
Football League has a heavy responsibility. Coaches and young
players look to the league and its players as role models.
The "trickle down" effect of what the NFL does and does not
do is tremendous, everything from the style of play to the
way injuries are and are not treated.
As we get ready to kick off another season, two of the most
important people involved with the National Football League
this season won't play a single down. Doctors Richard
Ellenbogen and Hunt Batjer are preeminent neurosurgeons
specializing in concussions. The NFL appointed them to chair
the league's Head, Neck and Spine Committee. And unlike
doctors who've worked with the league in the past, they
strongly believe in the long-term consequences of
Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, knows he has a
problem. It's becoming apparent that concussions to
professional football players could become a threat to the
game. That's a strong statement but there is growing evidence
about the long-term effects of head injuries to football
players -- both past and present -- and a growing recognition
that something has to be done -- soon. The NFL's own studies
indicate that memory-related diseases are much higher in
former football players than in the general population. Last
year the NFL instituted new guidelines for when a player
could re-enter a game after a concussion. That move was
applauded as necessary and overdue. This year the league has
produced a poster for locker rooms that says it in black and
white. Concussions can lead to "the early onset of dementia."
But then there was the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee,
which included the NFL's doctor at the time who didn't agree
there was a link between playing football and long-term
dementia. After being blasted by Congress, out went the old
committee and the NFL's doctor. In came the Head, Neck and
Spine Committee, headed by the new Doctors Ellenbogen and
I had a chance to sit down with the doctors for their first
extensive interview on our weekly program, Dan Rather Reports
on HDNet. The NFL asked them not to talk, but they insisted,
saying the latest information and research on concussions
needs to be out there and the public made aware of the risks
"I'll tell you one thing: Hunt and I have day jobs. We
wouldn't be doing this if we didn't believe this," said Dr.
Ellenbogen. "We're in this not only for the 2,000 NFL
players, but for the 30 million kids who play active sports."
And those kids, it is becoming clear, are increasingly at
risk, girls as well as boys. "We have to realize that this
cuts across both genders and all sports," said Dr.
Both doctors told me they are lining up the best minds they
can find to help them with research, from scientists at MIT
to the National Institutes of Health and the Department of
Defense, which is doing extensive research on soldiers, bomb
blasts and concussions.
They have several goals, such as better equipment (like
helmets with sensors) to establishing a massive database on
anyone playing football in the NFL, to tracking retired NFL
players and educating the public about head trauma. These
doctors, with 60 years of combined experience in treating
head injuries, say education is the key. And their best
advice for any coach or player who suspects a concussion? Get
out of the game, immediately. Concussions can be crippling,
even deadly. Especially multiple concussions. As Dr.
Ellenbogen told me, "When in doubt, sit it out."
"Dan Rather Reports" airs Tuesdays at 8pm ET on HDNet. It
will also be available on iTunes on Wednesday.
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