The lawsuits filed on behalf of retired National Football League players against the NFL are getting a lot of press. The retired players accuse the NFL of knowing that repeated concussions could lead to brain damage and yet hiding that information from players. I'm not yet sure how I feel about the merits of the case, but I am very interested in the scientific studies being developed from this population of people who suffered repeat mild traumatic brain injuries.
More than 2,400 retired players are now plaintiffs in the litigation. At issue is whether the NFL knew if there were links between football-related head trauma and permanent brain injuries, and failed to take appropriate action. Attorneys for former players such as Jim McMahon, Alex Karras, John Hannah, and Art Monk, among other Hall of Famers,accuse the NFL of negligence and intentional misconduct in its response to the headaches, dizziness and dementia that their clients have reported, even after forming the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee to study the issue in 1994. The league has consistently and strongly denied the claims. The NFL certainly cannot deny that its Committee was, for many years, comprised of NFL insiders, several of whom resigned under pressure as a result of their perceived pro-league medical opinions which were at odds with the peer-reviewd medical literature on traumatic brain injury.
According to an Associated Press review of 95 lawsuits filed through last Monday, 2,425 players are now plaintiffs in concussion-related complaints against the NFL. The total number of plaintiffs in those cases is 3,762, which includes players, spouses and other relatives or representatives. Some of the plaintiffs are named in more than one complaint, but the AP count does not include duplicated names in the total.
Many of the suits were recently consolidated before a federal judge in Philadelphia, and seek medical care.
Three years ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodelll appeared before Congress regarding concussions and refused to acknowledge a connection between concussions suffered on the field and brain damage. Several members of Congress were frustrated with Goodell's testimony, prompting one to say that the NFL's response to the issue reminded her of tobacco companies saying there weren't ill health effects due to smoking but later had to admit there was.
Leaving a discussion of the merits of these lawsuits for another day, the good news is the advancement in science that is emerging as a result of the cooperation of former NFL players who are volunteering to participate in brain injury studies. Sadly, too many of these players are participating after committing suicide and leaving their brains to be studied. Recently, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest, specifically preserving their brains for future study.
Tests performed on a group of retired NFL players revealed that more than 40 percent suffered from problems such as depression and dementia, adding to a growing pile of evidence that repeated sports-related head traumas can lead to lasting neurological issues.
Analyzing 34 ex-professional football players (average age 62) on benchmarks such as memory, reasoning, problem-solving and behavior, researchers from the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas found that 20 tested normal while the rest suffered from depression, various deficits in memory/thinking or a combination of these issues. Twenty-six of the players also underwent MRI scans.
"We picked up that many guys were depressed but didn't know it," added study author Dr. John Hart, medical science director at the center. "The cognitive impairments . . . were more than what's expected for their ages. A lot had damage to their brain's white matter, so for us it's a real clue or marker to look for."
Hart is scheduled to present the findings Friday at the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) annual meeting in St. Louis. Research presented at scientific meetings should be considered preliminary until it is published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
An estimated 300,000 sports-related concussions occur in the United States each year, and mounting attention is being paid to the neurological toll of those injuries on former professional athletes. In June, a massive bundle of lawsuits representing more than 2,100 National Football League players was filed against the league, claiming that the NFL hid information linking football-related head injuries to permanent brain damage.
The results of Hart's study and other related research highlight the need to actively inquire about depressive symptoms among those who have suffered concussions. Additionally, according to Hart, it's important to "let the brain rest and heal" following concussions instead of charging back onto the field — which opens players to a phenomenon known as "second-impact syndrome." The brain can swell catastrophically when a second concussion occurs before symptoms of the first have abated.
The NFL has come around on this issue from its early days of denying the problem. Indeed, the NFL produced in conjunction with the CDC a Concussion poster subtitled, "A Must Read for NFL Players | Let's Take Brain Injuries Out of Play. The poster acknowledges that concussions may cause permanent brain damage.