Ben McGrath of the New Yorker has published a story that is appearing online and in print that takes a long look at the concussion issue at hand, most poignantly in the sport of football. I spent a good amount of time with Ben on the phone and the staff of the New Yorker helping create this piece.
McGrath writes about the sport which he has become fond of, where it began for him, and where this issue with head trauma has been and is going:
The crisis surrounding football’s brutality at the turn of the twentieth century was so great that it eventually inspired Presidential intervention. Greg Aiello, the N.F.L.’s present-day spokesman, told me, “You should research Teddy Roosevelt’s involvement in changing the game in 1905.” Roosevelt, whose son was then a freshman football player at Harvard, summoned college coaches to the White House to discuss reforming the sport before public opinion turned too far against it. Eighteen people had died on the field that year. The idea, or hope, was to preserve the game’s essential character-building physicality (“I’ve got no sympathy whatever with the overwrought sentimentality that would keep a young man in cotton-wool,” Roosevelt wrote) without filling up the morgue.
From all these developments, we got smash-mouth football and, later, the spectacularly combustive open-field collisions that seem to leave players in a state of epileptic seizure nearly every weekend now. “We had a lot of discussions right after I became commissioner about this subject,” Paul Tagliabue, who served as the N.F.L.’s chief executive from 1989 until 2006, told me recently. “And one by-product of that was the question of whether defensive players were acquiring a sense of invulnerability, and playing the game with a level of abandon and recklessness that was not warranted. We created a committee with Mel Blount and Willie Lanier and some others. They raised the idea that it was no longer tackle football. It was becoming collision football. The players looked like bionic men. Whatever was the violence of Sam Huff, I don’t think he felt invulnerable, like a bionic man.”
McGrath has A LOT of sources and interviews for this story, painting a full and bleak picture of the game. He even went to the most well-known scribe on this issue, Alan Schwarz for input;
Credit for the public’s increased awareness of these issues must go to the Times, and to its reporter Alan Schwarz, whom Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Steelers’ neurosurgeon and a longtime medical adviser to the league, calls “the Socratic gadfly in this whole mix.” Schwarz was a career baseball writer, with a heavy interest in statistics, when, in December of 2006, he got a call from a friend of a friend named Chris Nowinski, a Harvard football player turned pro wrestler turned concussion activist.
McGrath even spent time with the Pittsburgh Steelers during the season after the league decree came down about helmet-to-helmet hits, citing James Harrison as one of the transgressors of this behavior. He had the opportunity to talk with players and part of his conversation with Troy Polamalu is seen here;
When I brought up the call for change with the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu, an All-Pro safety who plays with brilliant abandon, and mentioned that the sport’s popularity seemed to be unflagging, he cut me off. “Is that your opinion? That it doesn’t need to be changed?” He later added, “This game’s on the verge of getting out of hand,” and defended the refs, who, he said, were “just trying to protect it.” This from a guy who, a few weeks earlier, had complained that there was “a paranoia that is unneeded,” and that if people wanted to watch soccer they could and would.
Near the end of October, McGrath started to see some strange occurences around the sport of football;
A few days later, a Cleveland Browns linebacker collapsed at his locker-room stall, after practice, in the presence of reporters, and was taken to the hospital. Shortly after that, two high-school players died on the same day—one on the field, in Massachusetts, of a heart stoppage, and the other, in North Carolina, by suicide, five weeks after suffering a season-ending concussion. The same week, two Division I college players announced their retirement, out of concerns relating to concussions, and team doctors at the University of Utah “medically disqualified” a sophomore from continuing his career.
This is where this blog comes in;
I’ve also begun reading the Concussion Blog, which is written by a high-school athletic trainer in Illinois named Dustin Fink, who was moved to devote his life to the cause of player safety and awareness after suffering depression that he attributes to “many” concussions. From Fink’s research, for instance, I know that the rate of reported concussions in the N.F.L. did not decline after the stern warnings in October; it increased. Some of this may be attributable to greater conscientiousness on the part of players and medical staffs, which is a good thing, but the “disturbing” hits, as the league’s Ray Anderson called them, were just as prevalent, if not more so, as the season wore on. When I called Fink, he told me about a friend of his who plays in the N.F.L., a longtime taxi-squad member who had finally caught on as a starter. Earlier this season, the friend showed up in the concussion database that Fink compiles from news reports and other sources. “I texted him and asked how it happened,” he said. “He texted back, ‘I’m always concussed, they just caught me this week.’ ”
Granted it is an honor to be part of the picture McGrath is painting, however he has taken a stance and inward look on the sport that we have fallen madly in love with. It is not wrong for him to pose these thoughts and question what is happening. Times have changed, just like we now know a “trick-knee” is something much worse, most likely an ACL tear, concussion identification and treatment is changing.
I don’t harbor any disdain for the injury known as a concussion; it is going to happen. However, there are ways to reduce the prevalence of the injury, more importantly how we handle the injury is of major concern. No longer should we accept “bell rung” as a semi-diagnosis, and when it comes to adolescents, much more attention needs to be given to longer recovery. Removal from play should be number one, and if the adolescent has a concussion they should not be returned on the same day, or even within 48 hours.
Thank you to Ben McGrath and the New Yorker for the opportunity. I hope this sparks more debate and conversation, leading to increased knowledge of our current concussion issue.