The NFL and Concussions: The Beginning of the End

Rob HughesContributor IFebruary 24, 2011

27 Nov 1988:  Quarterback Don Majkowski of the Green Bay Packers (left) attempts to evade Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson during a game at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois.  The Bears won the game, 16-0. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /All
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

By Rob Hughes

INDIANAPOLIS -- Concussions.

If you’re an NFL fan, doctors and parents excluded, you’re probably tired of hearing about them, and the ever-increasing knowledge of their long-term impact on the brain.

I wish there were nothing to worry about, that the NFL will overcome the damage that is being done to the bodies of those that play the game for our entertainment, and that football was still safe enough to let today’s youth out on the pee-wee gridiron without any worry. 

That however, would be ignoring several blatant facts, something the NFL is becoming very good at doing.

Just this past week football lost a beloved member of its family, Dave Duerson.  He was best known as a safety for the Chicago Bears from 1983-1989.  Duerson was selected to four consecutive Pro Bowls, and was a two-time Super Bowl champion.  Duerson played his college ball at Notre Dame and graduated with honors with a BA in Economics. 

Before the news of how Duerson had died came out, I sat thinking to myself that it was odd this 51-year old man was dead.  I had just read a very well-written, eye-opening piece on concussions by Jeanne Marie Laskas in GQ Magazine.  The article mainly discussed the circumstances surrounding Steelers’ offensive lineman Mike Webster’s death, and the Nigerian coroner, Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was responsible for determining the cause of his death.

Something told me these two football players’ deaths were connected, that they had something in common.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that Duerson did not die peacefully, nor did I think his death would be the result of a common cause. 

Duerson was found dead in his Florida home via a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.  He had committed suicide. 

More alarming even, Duerson had sent text messages to his family asking that his brain be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  CTE can best be described as a degenerative brain disease tied to depression, dementia and suicide, associated with repeated head trauma. 

At the risk of sounding too doctorly, CTE is a buildup of tau proteins.  These tau proteins become a kind of muck, backing up the process responsible for moods, emotions, and executive functioning, which is a fancy way of saying it affects everything. 

There will be numerous studies performed on Duerson’s brain to see what drove him to suicide and to see why he was so intent on his brain being tested for CTE, a point that he clearly found important to shed light on, so much so that he took his own life.

The media will give their opinion, hopefully.  This is actually an incident worth giving attention to, unlike Brett Favre’s indiscretions with cell phone pictures. 

“I think that players will draw a straight line between playing football and getting a degenerative brain disease, and maybe even the act of committing suicide,” said ESPN's Tony Kornheiser. 

“I wouldn’t draw that straight line yet.  I don’t ever want to have to draw it.”

Kornheiser went on to say that he believes most scientific studies are years, if not decades, away from making an “authoritative judgment”.  Good thing he’s not the one leading the charge on this, or else we could have another 100 former NFL players lost to a disease whose existence the NFL has only recently begun to recognize. 

Laskas does a great job of showing the NFL in a light that it will look back on and deeply regret.  A group of scientists and doctors have dedicated themselves to proving that CTE is connected to repeated blows to the head.  There is no denying that these blows happen to football players every Sunday for three hours. 

“Iron Mike” Webster died in 2002.  In the last years of his life he was crazy, homeless and poor.  He suffered from amnesia, dementia, depression and acute bone and muscle pain.  Webster died at the age of 50, almost exactly the same age Duerson was when he took his own life. 

Former San Francisco 49er offensive lineman Randy Cross told the New York Times in reference to Duerson’s death, “It ought to terrify anyone who plays the game.”

CTE is why Webster died, and although Duerson killed himself, I’d be willing to bet that CTE is what drove Duerson to his death.   The neurodegenerative disease does not stop with these two former players though.  There have been 17 confirmed cases of CTE in deceased former NFL players by Dr. Omalu. 

Chris Nowinski, a former partner of Omalu’s, is largely responsible for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.  This is the center where Duerson’s brain will be studied by the world’s foremost experts, and the very place that Duerson requested his brain be dissected. 

The thing is, it doesn’t take a doctor to figure this puzzle out.  NFL players and, gasp, amateur and youth players are at an exponentially increased risk for this horrific disease.  A risk that if is found to be even more common than originally thought, could threaten our country’s most popular sport. 

The problem with that is the NFL knows it.