October 2, 2015

JAIN | I Don’t Think I Can Watch Football Anymore

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As a Texas-raised kid, football has always held a certain importance in my life. In high school, Fridays were devoted to high school football games, Saturdays were for college football games and Sundays we watched NFL games. It was an aspect of every Texan’s social life in some sense. While I lost touch with football after coming to  Cornell, I still made an effort to watch any NFL game I could with my friends.

This past Sunday started out as any Sunday normally would. I sat in front of the TV at my fraternity house with friends, watching football and eating brunch. The Bills were playing the Dolphins, so the game wasn’t particularly interesting. At one point in the game, Ronald Darby, a rookie corner on the Bills, attempted to make a tackle. A defensive lineman from the Bills came in to help clean up the play, but in the process made shoulder to helmet contact with Darby. The tackle was secured, but when Darby got up, he stumbled around, seemingly disoriented.

NFL concussion protocol states that if a player appears to display concussion-like symptoms, he must be evaluated on the sideline and pass the concussion assessment in order to continue playing in the game. However, Darby stumbled to the line of scrimmage and continued to play in the game.

As of Tuesday morning, 29 concussions have been reported on official NFL injury reports so far this season. This would put teams on track to report around 155 concussions during the regular season, the highest since 2012. While certain measures have been enacted to reduce concussions in the NFL, such as new rules to protect players’ heads and spines, it seems concussions are inevitable in football.

What’s the big deal though? Almost everyone has suffered a concussion or knows someone who has. That was essentially my sentiment before hearing about the recent Boston University study that identified chronic traumatic encephalopathy posthumously in 96 percent of NFL players subjected to the study. More commonly called CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, such as concussions. The brain degeneration has been associated with memory loss, impulse control problems, aggression and depression to name a few symptoms.

Two of the most infamous cases of CTE-related NFL deaths came in the suicides of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau. Both Pro Bowl players shot themselves in the chest to preserve their brains for research purposes. Duerson complained of his deteriorating mental state during the final months of his life. Seau suffered from insomnia for the last seven years of his life, and the lyrics to the song “Who I Ain’t,” a song about a man who regretted the person he has become, were found on the kitchen table of his home after his suicide. Both players were later confirmed to suffer from CTE by neurologists at Boston University and the NIH.

Interestingly, neither Duerson nor Seau had any officially reported concussions during their NFL careers. Seau’s ex-wife would later claim that Seau did suffer from concussions during his NFL career, but played through them.

While both Duerson and Seau were star players, the NFL is largely comprised of role players with very little guaranteed money on their contracts. Essentially, they can be cut at any time and no longer have any source of income. It seems that this is what drives players to continue to play through their concussions or other injuries. If they are seen to be injury prone, or specifically concussion prone, they may not be signed again when their contract expires. Such was the case with perennial Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker, who was blacklisted by nearly every NFL team after repeatedly suffering from concussions throughout his ten-year NFL career.

While I love football and have a myriad of wonderful memories associated with the game, I can no longer support or watch it in any way. The damage it does to the players is undeniable. More disturbing is the lack of effort the NFL puts into player safety. A simple step in the right direction would be to guarantee extended job security for all players, thus reducing the number of unreported concussions. However, it seems stopping concussions altogether in the NFL will be a near impossibility with the current rules and regulations. Unless major upheavals are made in the way the game is played, it is an inherently unsafe game for any player involved.

Ronald Darby, the Bills rookie previously mentioned, is listed as fully healthy on the Buffalo Bills injury report and will play in Buffalo’s game this Sunday.

Akshay Jain is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences. College Stuff appears alternate Fridays this semester. He may be reached at [email protected].