BY DIANE DIMOND
Football is proven to be dangerous to players’ health. Why isn’t it regulated?
Our government — both state and federal — has countless laws and regulations designed to keep citizens safe and healthy, from safety standards on the foods we eat and the cars we drive, to laws that govern workers in coal mines or those who handle hazardous materials like asbestos or formaldehyde.
But there is one obvious health hazard the government has shied away from regulating: the danger inherent in contact sports like hockey, soccer, rugby and, especially, football that has been shown to cause a type of brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in huge numbers of athletes.
This debilitating disease is caused by repeated blows to the head, and it literally clogs the brain’s crucial pathways with an abnormal protein, resulting in extreme behavior changes like mood swings, memory loss, confusion, aggressive rages, depression, anxiety and, in some cases, suicide.
To my mind, there is no bigger culprit than the National Football League. It has spent decades marketing and glorifying the game as the king of sports, an activity that all red-blooded American kids should embrace and emulate. Through its skillful cultivation of fans, the league ensures generations of future devotees.
The NFL is on track to rake in $14 billion of revenue this year. Fanatic fascination with football and the NFL’s massive financial sway have helped protect the league from outside interference. Even though we live in a time when Uncle Sam seeks to regulate all manner of our daily lives, this lucrative league with its all-too-willing players continues to dodge the regulation bullet.
I’ve never been for more government interference, but I dare say that if any other industry were to put its employees at such proven risk, lawmakers would be racing to introduce new laws. There is no doubt football is dangerous to a player’s health.
Scientists, many of whom are from the Boston University School of Medicine, have conducted two major CTE studies that should send a shudder down the spine of every parent with a kid who wants to play football.
Most recently, a team led by Dr. Ann McKee examined 111 donated brains from deceased NFL football players. (CTE can only be diagnosed during autopsy). Only one brain was CTE-free. Think about that. One hundred and ten out of 111 who participated in this career of head butting and bone jarring left the game with a mental disability.
“We’re seeing this in a very large number that participated in football for many years,” said Dr. McKee. “While we don’t know the exact risk and we don’t know the exact number, we know this is a problem in football.”
I’d say that’s an understatement.
McKee’s team examined a total of 202 brains from football players of all levels of the game. The conclusion was stunning even for those who’d only played in school.
Nearly 88 percent of all the brains examined had CTE. Three of 14 donors who had played only football in high school had the disease. An astounding 48 of the 53 college players had CTE-riddled brains. And the disease had also struck 9 of 14 semi-pro players and 7 of 8 Canadian Football League players.
McKee’s team reached a similar finding in a 2015 study. The brains of 91 former NFL players were examined, and 87 were afflicted with CTE. After that study was made public, even the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety admitted to Congress that there is a link between CTE and professional football.
McKee’s concluded, “this disease is much more common than we previously realized.” Yet we have left it to the very industry that creates these tragic cases to police itself? Really?
A federal court established and is overseeing a billion-dollar NFL fund to help players who prove the game caused a wide range of afflictions. In addition to covering damages due to CTE, the league has agreed to compensate those diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia or ALS.
This further proves my point: Any profession that causes that many serious health issues should not be allowed to operate without some sort of outside oversight.
The NFL now proclaims it is “committed to protecting players and helping to create a healthier experience for athletes,” but science proves that the mega-lucrative league has done a lousy job over the years. The deadline for a player to sign up for possible compensation under the so-called Concussion Fund was last month. According to one source, 12,000 NFL players have registered so far, most of whom are still waiting for their medical evaluation. Only two have received settlements.
To be fair, the NFL has instituted a few rule changes designed to make the game safer. Adding more safety rules might make for a less exciting game, but I wonder: At what cost will we allow the status quo to continue? What about incoming players who are not covered by the Concussion Fund?
Don’t all football players deserve workplace protection as much as coal miners?