Stop Ignoring Head Trauma: Turn Off The Super Bowl

NPR | Jan. 31, 2013 9:44 a.m.

Contributed By:

Barbara J. King

The brain of former NFL star Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year, showed signs of the kind of neurodegenerative disease associated with repetitive head trauma.

The brain of former NFL star Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year, showed signs of the kind of neurodegenerative disease associated with repetitive head trauma.

Elsa, Getty Images

The grim headlines just keep coming. This week it’s former NFL kicker Tom Dempsey. Age 66, Dempsey suffers from dementia. During his football career he endured three diagnosed concussions and, almost certainly, several undiagnosed ones. As The New York Times notes, his neurologist was “astonished by the amount of damage” visible on Dempsey’s brain scans.

Earlier this month researchers announced that the brain of Junior Seau, the former NFL linebacker who committed suicide last spring, showed signs of the kind of neurodegenerative disease associated with repetitive head trauma. A causal link between the type of skull-jarring hits that professional football players experience and long-term degenerative brain disease, including dementia, is no longer in serious question (see this technical report from the scientific journal Brain and this blog post about traumatic brain injury in women).

As NPR reports, more than 3,800 football players have by now sued the NFL over their head injuries. That’s a staggering number.

And here it is again, time for the biggest, splashiest football event of the year. On Sunday, this year’s Super Bowl contest is to be played in New Orleans between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens. As anthropologists are fond of reminding us, Super Bowl watching is a cultural ritual. Even the glitzy new commercials can be fun to scrutinize, making it easy enough to kick back with some good food and drink and forget the brain-trauma news.

But what if we decided to turn off the TV this Sunday? What if we just said: no thanks, no more willful glorification of a sport seductive enough for our nation’s young males to risk damaging their brains on the field, under the Friday night lights?

I can anticipate a few objections to a TV turn-off.

Pro football players are adult men, freely making choices. True. President Obama took up this point in a recent interview with The New Republic. In light of the physical punishment players experience, he noted, football fans nowadays may have to wrestle with their consciences. The president said, “I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union, they’re grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies.”

To this, I would add that children as young as middle- and high-school age may be at risk, too. When we root for the Super Bowl’s tough-guy, play-even-with-injuries culture, we don’t help these kids.

Hey, it’s not just football. Also true; hockey and other sports that involve violent clashes may also cause brain injuries. But football is … different. I attended graduate school at the University of Oklahoma during the winning Barry Switzer years; I witnessed firsthand Americans’ football obsession. We have to start somewhere, so why not with a sport in which a player, Super Bowl contestant Bernard Pollard, worries that a death may happen right on the field?

Not watching won’t change anything. Maybe. And maybe it’s better to watch the game with our kids, pointing out the dangers when the inevitable hard hits begin. Or maybe the NFL should post call-in numbers at the bottom of the screen, showing how we can all text $10 donations in support of brain research, a Superstorm Sandy approach to raising awareness.

I’m open to ideas.

But for the sake of our kids’ brains, something has to change.

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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