Saturday, May 28, 2011

Doug Brown, concussions and "players slowly killing themselves"

According to Winnipeg Blue Bombers' defensive tackle Doug Brown, CFL players were shown a study at the recent Players Association annual general meeting that suggests the average life expectancy of professional football players is only 55, 26 years below the Canadian average. There's been a lot of research on concussions and studies of their devastating long-term effects on particular players, but the life expectancy data is particularly disturbing, as it points out that early deaths among former football players are the norm, not anomalies. That's got Brown, a 15-year CFL veteran, worrying about making his will and debating if he'd play football again (or let his kids play) if he knew what he does now. 

Brown's comments (which came in his latest column for the Winnipeg Free Press, titled "Players slowly killing themselves,") are among the boldest statements any active football player has made on concussions, as much of the reaction to date has been along the lines of players like Hines Ward and James Harrison complaining about rule changes intended to reduce head injuries. Brown has always been one of the CFL's players most willing to speak his mind, though, which generally makes his columns an intriguing read; he's recently opined on everything from CFL free agency to the Bombers' locker room to the NFL lockout and the potential return of the NHL's Jets, and his perspective's always interesting. This piece goes beyond that, though; it's a must-read for any football fan out there.

It's no secret that concussions can have awful effects, both physically and mentally, and that they're a notable issue in the CFL as well as the NFL (and the NHL, and MLB, and NCAA and CIS sports...). However, most of the stories of potentially concussion-related deaths north of the border have involved older ex-players, including Bobby Kuntz, Jay Roberts and Tony Proudfoot. Concussions are not just an issue for those who played long ago, though, and they can do plenty of damage while players are still young. That's illustrated by tales of American players like Owen Thomas, Chris Henry, Shane Dronett and Dave Duerson and the ages they died at (21, 26, 38 and 50 respectively). As Brown (pictured at right receiving the 2009 Reebok Your Move Fan Choice Award)  writes, statistics presented at the recent CFL Players Association annual general meeting in Las Vegas take those stories from troubling anecdotes about a few players to horrifying examples of a larger trend (I've added links where relevant):

According to information from a UNC study we were shown, "Repeatedly concussed NFL players had five times the rate of mild cognitive impairment (pre-Alzheimer's) than the average population." The same study also showed that "...retired NFL football players suffer from Alzheimer's disease at a 37 per cent higher rate than average." Going into this conference we were all somewhat familiar with the long term consequences of playing football, but not to the depth that was introduced at our meetings.

Next we were shown that Time Magazine had produced a story about football called The Most Dangerous Game, and the author, Sean Gregory, concluded that, "Men between the ages of 30 and 49 have a one in a thousand chance of being diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer's, or another memory related disease. An NFL retiree has a one in fifty-three chance of receiving the same diagnosis." This was around the moment in Las Vegas where a collective 'thunk' was heard as all of our jaws hit the floor. These are not CFL statistics, but you would have to be pretty naive to think that these facts do not apply to our game as well.

By this point, morale was already at an all time low at Planet Hollywood, but then, if you can imagine, things got worse as we were shown the findings by Michael Glueck M.D. and Robert Cihak M.D. who wrote, "It is not a widely disseminated, downloaded or discussed fact that the average life expectancy for all pro football players, including all positions and backgrounds, is 55 years. Several insurance carriers say it is 51 years." According to this math, if I can live for another 19 years I will be beating the average! (Insert false enthusiasm here.) After hearing this sobering fact, I have to admit, I stopped paying so much attention to our report on the CFLPA pension plan, as it kind of defeats the purpose of saving money for retirement when you learn that most all of the people that work in your industry die 10 years before the normal age of retirement in Canada of 65.

It's that Glueck/Cihak study that's the most frightening. I haven't been able to track it down online, but presuming Brown's quote from it is accurate, that demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt that professional football has a severe problem on its hands. The horrifying stories of the potentially concussion-related suicides of Thomas, Dronett and Duerson are one thing, but this suggests those stories are far from outliers. (For reference, the average life expectancy in Canada in 2008 was 81, and the average in the U.S. at that time was 78.4, so if those numbers are right, football may be taking close to 25 years off players' lives.

That's not to say that football should be immediately banned, or that those numbers are going to inexorably continue. There's a lot of research being done on how to reduce and prevent concussions, and that's led to promising advances in helmets and concussion treatment. Much more needs to be done, but that's a good start. Awareness of concussions has also grown to the point where they're a notable media issue, and that spotlight has helped us get to a point where teams generally do a much better job of giving players time to recover; it's also helped reduce concussions in some of the most preventable areas, such as practices. (It's worth noting that the CFL's reduced practice schedule probably helps in this area, as does the smaller size of CFL players in general; however, those effects may be partially offset by the CFL playing two more regular-season games each year than the NFL.) We know much more about head injuries now than we did in the past, and that should hopefully mean that today's players will suffer fewer concussions, get better treatment and live longer than those of previous eras. However, those statistics show us that the starting point may be much worse than previously thought.

You know what really speaks to how terrifying this information is, though? Brown has played for 15 years in the CFL, and has become one of its most notable players. He's a celebrity in Winnipeg with a newspaper column and a radio show, and all of that has come because of his football skills. He writes that knowing what he does now, though, he might not do it all again, and he might encourage kids to stay away from football instead of taking it up. Here's his grim conclusion:

I don't have any children at the moment, but if I do end up having a son I can honestly tell you I'm not sure right now whether he should play football and whether I would even encourage him to. Though the game has changed my life in numerous beneficial ways and afforded me opportunities, exposure, and a lifestyle I have always coveted, only in the last few years have the results of studies like these been coming out and people in our game made aware of the damage we are doing to ourselves.

These life-altering consequences and hazards of playing football are still not mainstream yet, but what do you expect will happen to participation at the grass roots level when it does? You don't have to be a professional football player to traumatize and permanently injure your brain. It happens at all levels of the game.

Before I go start working on my will this afternoon, I will leave you with the results of a Head Trauma-G-force study done by the University of Oklahoma that we also saw in Las Vegas. It tells us that, "Head to head lineman impact G-force," is 20 to 30 Gs. It also tells us that the, "G-force required for a fighter pilot to pass out," is five to six Gs. What happens to a lineman that plays 15 years of professional football and on average, experiences "head to head lineman impacts" 60 times a game, roughly 18 times a year?

I guess we are not going to have to wait too long to find out.

Joanna Krupa Ashley Olsen Danneel Harris Veronika Vaekov√° Eve

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