Lost in all of the NFL scandals last week – domestic violence, alleged child abuse, a possible cover up of video evidence – was an admission by the league that ultimately could pose a much bigger threat to its existence.
Are retired football players likely to develop cognitive problems?
In a document submitted by the NFL to the U.S. District Court judge overseeing the concussion settlement between the league and over 5000 of its former players, the National Football League expects that close to one-third of retired players will develop long-term neurologic problems, according to The New York Times.
In the report, which was prepared by the Segal Group for the NFL, the league reverses its long-held stance that no link exists between football and the development of long-term brain damage from concussions.
According to Ken Belson of The New York Times, the report admits, “Thus, our assumptions result in prevalence rates by age group that are materially higher than those expected in the general population. Furthermore, the model forecasts that players will develop these diagnoses at notably younger ages than the generation population.”
What types of brain conditions can develop?
The NFL’s actuarial numbers were compiled to estimate how much the league would have to pay out to compensate players who develop cognitive problems. The NFL assumes that 28% of all players could ultimately develop neurocognitive diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
The executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, Chris Nowinski, has been professing the dangers of brain injuries from football for years. “This statement clears up all the confusion and doubt manufactured over the years questioning the link between brain trauma and long-term neurological impairment. We have come a long way since the days of outright denial. The number of former players predicted to develop dementia is staggering, and that total does not even include former players who develop mood and behavior disorders and die prior to developing the cognitive symptoms associated with C.T.E.,” Nowinski explained to Belson.
Will the now-acknowledged link between football and brain injuries change the NFL’s place in sports and in society?
Have the recent scandals hurt interest in football?
Clearly the firestorm of criticism leveled at the league over scandals off the field has done little to curb fans’ interest in the games played on the field. 20.8 million viewers tuned in to the Thursday Night Football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens last week, only days after the release of the Ray Rice video. The game’s 13.7 rating was double the rating for the Week 2 Thursday Night Football game last year and 99% higher than any Thursday game in the history of the NFL Network.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, I was one of those 20.8 million fans watching.
With the domestic violence charges against Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald and the league’s handling of them, many critics have openly asked whether the NFL really cares about women. It’s a fair question. Will women demand that football stand for and promote real change in society?
Will mothers continue to allow their sons to play football?
These court documents now present adult women – many of whom are mothers of school-aged boys – with a more difficult decision than whether to keep watching football. Now they must decide whether they should let their sons play the sport.
According to 2013 NCAA data, over 1 million young men play high school football in the United States. Approximately 6.5% of those players earn scholarships to play college football. Of the roughly 70,000 college football players, 1.6% will ever play in the NFL. 0.08% of high school football players will one day play on Sundays.
Women must now consider these odds. If their sons are lucky enough to hit the sports “jackpot” and actually make it to the NFL, their sons could have millions of dollars – and a 3 in 10 chance of suffering irreparable brain damage.
The decision of Drake Davis
Perhaps this type of risk-benefit calculation influenced Drake Davis and his family. Davis is a 6’4”, 215-pound wide receiver at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. As a four-star prospect ranked number 27 in the country by Rivals for the class of 2016, he has offers from Alabama and Florida State among others.
Drake Davis informed his coaches last week that he has decided to play soccer instead of football.
Maybe some mothers will decide to discourage their children from playing football. Most will ignore this news, this data, and these risks and let them play – maybe even push them to play – anyway. And maybe it doesn’t matter if 3 in 10 football players risk permanent brain damage.
We’ll watch anyway.
Note: A modified version of this post appears as my sports medicine column in the September 24, 2014 issue of The Post and Courier.