Looking into the future of football entails a lot more than just Super Bowl predictions and draft picks. Brain injuries, head trauma, and concussions are at the top of the 2016 football debate. The writers and at Ultius, striving to address issues and topics of importance are proud to present the following sample health sciences essay on head injuries and football.
Head Injuries in American Football
A very important movie was just released starring Will Smith, starring as Dr. Bennet Omalu, an African forensic pathologist, and neuropathologist in conflict with the National Football League (NFL) (“Bennet Omalu”). The NFL attempted to quash Dr. Omalu’s published findings on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) presented in a 2005 Journal on Neurosurgery, in an article entitled, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.” Mike Webster, a former Pittsburg Steeler, autopsied by Dr. Omalu, died in 2002 after years of struggle, including cognitive loss.
Rodney Peete’s crusade against football head injuries
In a recent Oprah Winfrey Network presentation of For Peete’s Sake, a reality series chronicling the life and struggles of the Peete family, led by former football quarterback Rodney Peete and wife, actress, model and singer, Holly Robinson Peete, Peete underwent an MRI, though the results will be shared during the finale (Peete). In a Huffington Post article he talks about how he has been personally impacted by CTE. His close friend Junior Seau, who experienced repeated brain trauma during his career, was diagnosed with CTE and Peete’s former teammate took his own life. Rodney laments that it was a relationship, the loss of which he will never get over. Another former teammate, Kevin Turner, died of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known by its common name, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disease, that Turner felt was associated with trauma he experienced from playing football (Peete). Erik Kramer, also a dear friend of Peete’s, attempted suicide in 2015. Kramer’s ex-wife stated he had been suffering from depression since his earlier football days, and attributes his suicide attempt to brain injury (Blankstein & Helsel). She added that their divorce was primarily due to his football injury, stating that they would have still been together but for its presence.
Spreading the word about the threat of head injuries
Peete wants to spread awareness about the impact caused by the brain degeneration suffered by professional football players (Peete). The goal should be to make major strides towards ensuring those playing the game are safeguarded and to aid those who have given so much to us, who are enduring such suffering now. Peete feels blessed that he has such a proactive wife in Holly, who reminds him constantly to remain vigilant about CTE. He mentioned The Football Players Health Study at Harvard University, a study that is examining the whole player in an effort to obtain a thorough and comprehensive perspective on the disease to increase the quality of care and treatment for those who have suffered (Peete).
The story of “Iron Mike” Webster
When a guy has a name like “Iron Mike”, it implies that he is tall, strong and impenetrable. He cannot be conquered, he is legendary and is super hero-like. You do not have to dig far into what a guy nicknamed Iron is all about. But Webster was not impenetrable, he could be conquered, he was legendary, but a super hero with his own kryptonite. No, his kryptonite was not another man, his kryptonite was the years he was subjected to a punishment no human man should endure. Webster was the first man to, through his autopsy, define chronic traumatic encephalopathy and give it a global voice (Omalu, et al.). Prior to his death, after 17 years with the NFL, Webster suffered:
- A loss of control of his body
- Constant throbbing of his head
- Numerous mental disorders bridging upon schizophrenia
- Hearing loss
- Herniated discs
- Damaged heel
- A torn rotator cuff
- A stiff elbow
- Knees without cartilage that grinded against his bone
- Physical problems with his knuckles and fingers (Garber)
He took a cocktail of medicines. Webster took:
- Eldepryl, generally prescribed for those who suffer from Parkinson’s disease
- In order to remain calm, he took Ritalin, an ADHD drug often prescribed to children or Dexedrine
- To stop seizures, Klonopin
- To control his anxiety, he took Paxil
- To reduce pain, Vicodin or Ultram or Darvocet or Lorcet
- To prevent depression, Prozac (Garber).
A life not worth living because of football
Webster was holed up in a budget hotel, unable to make it to his son’s then 10th birthday, in pain, consumed with narcotics with a vomit bag on his side (Garber). His son was resentful of his father’s non-appearance at the time, but as he matured, he understood his father had a legitimate reason. Those who knew and loved Webster had various tragic memories of the man called Iron Mike:
- Desperate for a few moments of peace from the acute pain, repeatedly stunning himself, sometimes a dozen times, into unconsciousness with a black Taser gun. “The only way he could get to sleep,” said Garrett.
- Glassy-eyed like a punch-drunk boxer, huddled alone, staring into space night after night at the Amtrak station in downtown Pittsburgh. “Living on potato chips and dry cereal,” said Joe Gordon, a Steelers employee.
- A formidable man, at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, who sometimes forgot to eat for days — sleeping in his battered, black Chevy S-10 pickup truck, a garbage bag duct-taped over the missing window. “Sometimes he didn’t seem to care,” said Sunny Jani, the primary caregiver the last six years of his life.
- Writing wandering journals in a cramped, earnest hand so convoluted in their spare eloquence that, upon reading them in his lucid moments, he would be moved to weep. “You had absolutely no idea what was going through his mind,” said Colin, his oldest son.
- The powerfully proud former athlete, anguished and curled up in a fetal position for three or four days, puzzling over his life, contemplating suicide and, in later years, placing those sad, rambling calls, almost daily in the later years, to friends and family when he couldn’t find his way home. “All I see is trees,” he’d say apologetically, almost in a whisper (Garber).
The tragedy of Iron Mike lives on in these incredibly painful memories:
“In the end, his body and brain left him a defeated man” (Garber).
The dangers of football head injuries to youths
Demario Harris – On September 26th, 2014, Demario Harris, 17, a Charles Henderson High School player in Alabama, was pronounced dead two days after making a tackle during a game (Bean). He was taken to Troy Regional Medical Center initially, but was later airlifted to Southeast Alabama Medical Center. Harris’ father contradicted media reports describing the young Harris’ cause of death as an aneurysm and stated that his son died from a brain hemorrhage he suffered after being hit in the Friday night game. Harris had received significant recruitment interest from several colleges prior to his death (Bean).
Isaiah Langston – On Friday night, Isaiah Langston, a varsity linebacker at Rolesville High School in North Carolina, collapsed on the football field prior to a game (Blanford). WakeMed Hospital declared Langston in critical condition over the weekend. Isaiah died on Monday, September 29, 2014. Aijalon Langston, Isaiah’s older brother, a Marine, said his death was due to a blood clot in the brain (Blanford).
Tom Cutinella – On October 1st, 2014, Tom Cutinella, a New York high school varsity football player collided with an opposing team member and died at Long Island’s Huntington Hospital later (Carver). Tom, who was just 16, suffered an extraordinary head injury during a game between Shoreham-Wading River High School and Elwood-John H. Glenn High School. Cutinella stood up immediately after the incident, then collapsed (Carver).
The death of the three high school football players, all within three days of each other, seemed like a harbinger of tragedy of horrific proportions. Is the game of football too much for younger, undeveloped brains? In fact, it is not limited to younger brains, so perhaps the question is, is football too much of a threat for young brains, and older brains over time? Is there a way to change the game? Is there a way to protect the players?
Wyatt Barber – The answer needs to be addressed sooner than later. Wyatt Barber, a 9 year-old Super Eagles football player, collapsed after non-contact scrimmage run-throughs, on Monday, November 9, 2015. He was taken to Holzer-Meigs Emergency Department, where he died later that night. A doctor had been flown in to help transport him to Columbus Children’s Hospital, but he died before they were able to get him into the plane.
In fact, in the 2015 season, there were 19 student deaths associated with youth football (McEvers, Silverman &Sullivan). The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research of the University of North Carolina, tracks football related deaths. According to research, there are two main categories – direct and indirect deaths, not to mention resulting mental disorders which frequently occur. For example, deaths that result from concussions, like brain trauma, or bone injuries, like broken spines; or deaths that result from cardiac arrest or heat stroke (McEvers, Silverman &Sullivan). Interest in participating in football has been declining over time, and there have been improvements made in helmet requirements, medical care, and rules prohibiting certain kinds of plays that tend to lead to disability or death. In the 1960s, there were 30 to 40 fatalities per year, but the current number of deaths has leveled off over the years.
Changes are needed in football programs
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has urged expansion of and a shift to non-tackle leagues, and a requirement that athletic trainers remain on site during games and practice (McEvers, Silverman &Sullivan). Steven H. Miles, MD and Shailendra Prasad, MD, MPH, University of Minnesota professors, have taken the clarion call even further than the AAP, recommending the end of public school tackle football programs altogether. However, the advantages to team sports make it difficult to justify such measures. Researchers believe that the key to a safer game include:
1. Definition of Concussions – There is a lack of standards in the diagnosis of concussions which might lead to the underreporting of the trauma (Kubota). Headaches are often viewed as symptoms of concussions, but more is needed since headaches are experienced by most people, unrelated to concussions. Questions related to balance and attention problems will likely become part of a standardized assessment process (Kubota).
2. Better Helmets – Progress has been made in search of improved helmet solutions. Numerous engineering efforts are being made in an attempt to develop increasingly absorbing textiles and creative helmet design innovations (Kubota). The problem of coming up with the best design is not an easy one.
3. Helmetless Training – Although counter intuitive, helmetless training takes advantage of the vulnerability players experience when they do not have helmets (Kubota). The process causes them to play a lighter game. In a Helmetless Tackling Training (HuTT) intervention program, players block and tackle without a helmet. In the research, players who participate in HuTT experience less head impact. It is acknowledged that this practice is not all that is necessary. Nothing will change until there are simultaneous equipment and behavioral changes (Kubota).
4. Neck Stabilization – Proper neck stabilization is central to the reduction of concussions in the game (Kubota). Neck motion is paramount in producing concussions. Reduction of the rate with which the neck moves, both slow and fast, is thought to aid in the prevention of concussions. Neck stabilization is an area that is under advanced study, including efforts by the United States Army Research Lab, which is looking into developing a tether system to protect players (Kubota).
5. Guards for the Mouth – Research has determined that players who use custom mouth guards suffer less traumatic brain injuries and concussions than those players who did not (Kubota).
Mothers like Holly Robinson-Peete are giving voice to the question of whether or not their children should play football or other rough sports. It appears that many more families should be asking the same question.
Bean, Josh. “Charles Henderson football player Demario Harris dies after collapsing on field during game.” AL.com. Alabama Media Group. 28 September 2014. Web. 29 April 2016. .
“Bennet Omalu.” Biography. A&E Television Networks, LLC. n. d. Web. 29 April 2016. .
Blanford, Andrea. “Rolesville High School football player dies after collapsing on field.” 11 ABC. ABC Inc., WTVD-TV Raleigh-Durham. 29 September 2014. Web. 30 April 2016. .
Blankstein, Andrew and Helsel, Phil . “Ex-NFL QB Erik Kramer Wounded in Apparent Suicide Attempt.” NBC News. NBC Universal. 20 August 2015 Web. 10 April 2016. .
Carver, Marina. “Third high school football player dies in a week.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 6 October 2014. Web. 29 April 2016. .
Garber, Greg. “A tormented soul.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures. 24 January 2005. Web. 29 April 2016. .
Kimball, Lindsay. “9-Year-Old Ohio Boy Dies During Youth Football Practice.” People. Time, Inc. 4 November 2015. Web. 29 April 2016. .
Kubota, Taylor. “5 Ways Science Could Make Football Safer.” LiveScience. Purch. 30 March 2016. Web. 29 April 2016. .
McEvers, Kelly, Silverman, Lauren and Sullivan, Becky. “Deaths Persist In Youth And Student Football Despite Safety Efforts.” NPR. 25 November 2015. Web. 29 April 2016. .
Omalu, Bennet, I., DeKosk, Steven, T., Minster, Ryan, L., Kamboh, M., Ilyas, Hamilton, Ronald, L. and Wecht, Cyril, H.”Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.” Neurosurgery Journal. July 2005. Web. 29 April 2016. .
Peete, Rodney. “After Years of Concussions, What Do I Do Now?” Huffington Post. TheHuffintonPost.com Inc. 29 April 2016. Web. 29 April 2016. .