When former Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso speaks at concussion seminars, he likes to tell the story about the time he took a shot to the head that left him woozy. "When I came to the sidelines, my coach asked me why I took myself out of the game," Kelso says. "I told him, 'When the running back comes out of the backfield, I'm seeing three of him.' He just shrugged it off and told me to get back out there and tackle the one in the middle."
The anecdote usually elicits laughter, but as we've learned in recent years, there's nothing funny about concussions. Kelso, who now does color commentary on Bills radio broadcasts, recounts the story not because he's trying to be a comedian but to illustrate how far we've come since his playing days in the 1980s and '90s, when the dangers of blows to the head were dismissed as minor occupational hazards of the game rather than potential tragedies.
The devastating toll of football concussions is back in the news, thanks to a riveting and damning new PBS two-hour documentary titled, "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis." The film, based on a book by investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, chronicles how, for nearly 20 years, the NFL dismissed research by doctors indicating a credible link between repeated blows to the head and the brain injury known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. "Denial" claims the NFL and commissioners Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell relied on team and league physicians who told them what they wanted to hear rather than acknowledge the mounting scientific evidence of a correlation between football head-banging and damaged brains.
The NFL went so far as to vilify the first doctor who found a link and disregarded the findings of another physician, Ann McKee, who says in the film that of 46 players whose brains were examined after their deaths, 45 had CTE.
When reporters questioned Tagliabue years ago about the NFL's concussion problem, he dismissed the inquisitors, saying they were trying to make a mountain out of a mole hill. He claimed the league experienced one concussion every three or four games, which, in his estimation, worked out to 2.5 concussions for every "22,000 players engaged." What's the saying, that figures lie and liars figure? Tagliabue was obfuscating to protect the golden goose league that will generate revenue in excess of $10 billion this year.
The NFL was forced to take action only after thousands of former players, many already contending with collision-caused dementia, filed a class-action suit that threatened to bring down the most powerful and affluent sports league on the planet. Before this season kicked off, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million, though it refused to acknowledge it had spent years covering up the problem. Though it was one of the largest class-action settlements in history, the league got off easy. The penalty could have been far, far more severe.
While it still doesn't recognize a connection between football and CTE, the NFL finally changed its protocols regarding concussions and has enacted rules and hefty fines to diminish the number of helmet-to-helmet hits. Fortunately, many of those changes have trickled down to the colleges and high schools. Working with former boxer and local activist Ray Ciancaglini, state Sen. Michael Nozzolio sponsored a law that prohibits any student who may have suffered a concussion from participating in athletic activities until he or she has gone 24 hours without symptoms and has been authorized to return by a licensed physician. It also requires coaches, teachers and other school personnel to be trained on the symptoms of mild traumatic brain injuries and the importance of proper medical treatment.
These are all positive steps that hopefully will greatly reduce the number of concussions, but you have to wonder what impact these latest revelations will have on parents. To paraphrase that popular Willie Nelson song, mamas-and papas-may be reluctant to let their babies grow up to be Cowboys or Giants or Bills or 49ers or Colts.
Violent collisions are a part of the game, and you can legislate only so much of that stuff out of the sport without changing its very nature. Steve Tasker, the former Bills special teams star turned CBS football analyst, told me the collisions he experienced on Sundays were as physically traumatic as high-speed car wrecks. And with athletes becoming bigger, faster and stronger, those car wrecks are only going to become more violent down the road. Kelso, who suffered several concussions during his career, wound up wearing a protective outer shell on his helmet. Scientists continue to work with helmet manufacturers to tweak the equipment in hopes of reducing injuries.
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the future of football was in jeopardy. A number of college players had died on the gridiron, prompting Teddy Roosevelt to warn the presidents of Ivy League football powerhouses that they needed to make their sport safer ASAP or he would use his bully pulpit to ban it. The presidents followed through. Football survived and eventually flourished.
Some predict the sport will become extinct in the not-so-distant future. I don't see that happening. Football has become too deeply ingrained in our culture and remains an entertainment juggernaut. Americans love it too much. Young people will continue to assume the risks involved in exchange for the money and the fame.
Fortunately, they'll be doing so in a safer environment.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
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