After holding six conferences with Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon from 1995 to 2008 I have called athletic concussions a ticking time bomb and undiagnosed health epidemic. I had a crisis of conscience in representing hundreds of NFL players who repeatedly were hit in the head in games and practice.
I now believe that each time an offensive lineman hits a defensive lineman at the inception of every play it produces a low level sub-concussive hit. A lineman who plays in high school, college and the pros may retire with 10,0000 sub-concussive hits, none of which were diagnosed, none of which he is aware of. The aggregate of these hits produce brain damage much more severe than being knocked out three times.
Prominent neurologists and researchers like Robert Cantu, Julian Bailes, Kevin Guskiewicz, Kristen Willeumier and David Hovda report that three or more concussions may lead to exponentially higher rates of Alzheimer’s, ALS, dementia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and depression. This is different from other injuries. Brain function provides memory, judgment, and personality -- what it means to be a sentient human being. That is why we are forming a new foundation, "Athletes Speak," with players advocating awareness and prevention.
The adolescent brain is at much higher risk than that of older players. The brain is still in the formative stages throughout the teenage years. It takes an estimated three times longer for consequences from concussions to clear in this group. Actual brain development can be retarded. These young people are students who are still in the midst of their education. Equipment at this level can be less than stellar. This is a group that needs special protection.
A movement is growing across the country to protect youthful football players. Football is not the only contact sport and other athletes need protection too. Visionary California State Assemblyman, Ken Cooley, just proposed a law which passed both houses limiting high school and middle school football practices. No full contact drills are permitted in the off-season and are limited during the season. Nineteen states have passed similar legislation and more are pending.
SMU head football coach June Jones has a variety of teaching techniques that limit practice contact without impairing team success. He has not permitted tackling during pre-season for more than years, starting with the Atlanta Falcons. The Sports Legacy Institute estimates that in high school football, 60 percent to 75 percent of head trauma occurs in practice, not in games. This contrasts with a low rate in the NFL.
Former New Orleans Saints front office executive Terry O'Neil has founded a new movement, “Practice Like the Pros,” designed to limit contact on high school practice fields. He has assembled a prestigious board with co-chairs, Ronnie Lott and John Madden, and has the support of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to actively push the initiative. There is even a Linkedin Group, Mothers Against Concussions, raising awareness.
Meanwhile the search for more protective helmetry continues. Jenny Morgan, CEO of Tate Technology, has a promising coil and compression helmet design to attenuate the energy force. A new head cap designed by Noggin Sports can be worn under helmets to provide more protection. A variety of sideline devices have been produced that can detect a sub-concussive hit in real time so an impacted player doesn’t return to play.
Doctors and researchers across the country are racing for nutraceutical and pharmaceutical solutions to
1) prophylactically help the brain be less at-risk for concussion,
2) stop the swelling at time of impact, and
3) actually heal a brain which has been impaired.
Dr. Jacob Vanlandingham has created one novel solution. Dr. Daniel Amen and his associate Dr. Kristen Willeumier have had promising results for many retired players with the use of a hyperbaric chamber. Dr. Robert Stern, Ann McKee, and pioneering former football player Chris Nowinski have a promising study at Boston University. There are many heroes in this movement.
I love football and think it teaches life lessons and values. Self-discipline, teamwork, real time application of complex plays, courage under pressure, resilience, and incredible camaraderie are all benefits. But if 50 percent of the mothers in this country realize the danger and forbid their teenage sons from playing, it poses an existential threat to football. The game won't die, but the socio-economics of the players will change. The same athletes who use a sport like boxing to escape economic circumstances, even knowing the risk, will compose the majority of players.
Football will never be injury free, but we can act now to make it safer. Parenting is our most critical role on this earth -- we need to protect the most vulnerable youth.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.