Acknowledging Brain Injuries in the NFL: Are We Taking Away Our (Super)heroes?

February 5, 2012 set a new record for American television. According to the NFL, approximately 111.3 million people tuned in to see the New York Giants defeat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, making it the most watched primetime telecast in American history. Two weeks from Sunday, the next NFL season begins. Fans are already planning their Sunday afternoons and Monday nights for the next 17 weeks and hoping that their team will make it into the playoffs and eventually the Super Bowl. Children are getting excited to see the closest person to a real-life superhero being back in action again.

Football has become more popular now than ever; and with that we see a rise in everything from viewership to injuries. In the past year we’ve been hearing headlines about player suicides, such as Junior Seau, former players speaking out against fear of their children playing the sport, former NFL players discussing how the game was not worth suffering from what seems to be chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) during retirement, and even parents of current NFL players saying how traumatic brain injuries have reached such an extent that they would never have let their children play the sport back then if it was as risky as it is today.

Today’s news tends to always have a new story,  a case of CTE being diagnosed in former NFL players. CTE, a degenerative disease that causes dementia-like symptoms is caused by multiple hits to the head. The original hit may only result in a minor traumatic brain injury (TBI) (also known to many as concussions), but with the pressure to an American hero; many NFL players are cleared to resume playing before they have fully recovered. Even if a player returns to the game after a concussion is fully healed, it’s almost indefinite that he will suffer from another traumatic brain injury, due to the nature of the sport.

Because of the limited monitoring of concussions in the time before this past decade, we hear stories of players such as Ray Easterling. Easterling played for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1970s and was beginning to show symptoms of what looked like dementia about 20 years ago. His widow, Mary Ann Easterling, reports seeing these changes in her husband and at the time, the NFL was not admitting that concussions were a major problem. Today we see CTE diagnosed in players who donate their brains to be studied and most of the findings concluded with the fact that CTE developed because of a history of repeat concussions. Because CTE is degenerative, while the NFL has been gaining momentum from fans and dedicated players in the past 20 years, CTE has been pushed on the backburner as a discussion topic as the condition of the former players only gets worse.

Football has always been considered a “man’s” sport, but with over 100 million viewers of all ages tuning in to watch the most recent Super Bowl, there is a lot more to be concerned about. Children see these players as their heroes. To them, the players are the closest things to superheroes. They can be knocked down, only to get up seconds later. They can be dragged off the field in a stretcher with no visible injuries, only to return to the game in the next quarter, even though they might be suffering from a traumatic brain injury. The mentality to shake it off and suck it up has gone so far that it affects youth playing football and even college football players. These once “superheroes” to children are becoming weak and suffering from brain damage as that child grows up and starts to the play the sport itself.

With the start of NFL season just over two-weeks away, the NFL finds itself in a very interesting positions. It is quite possibly the most popular American sport, however, it’s former players are suffering substantially and for the most part, are being ignored by the organization they once fought so hard to be a part of.

While the NFL has undeniably slacked on helping former players suffering from any kind of brain trauma up until now, my hope and one that I feel many will agree with, is that they make a change this season and for the future, and become proactive in the fight against these injuries. It’s no longer time for the NFL to stand around and take pride in the tremendous ratings they receive on television broadcasts or amount of tickets sold, it’s about caring for the players who have dedicated their lives to the sport, and many who ultimately lost their life because of that dedication.

One question always looms in the background in issues similar brain injuries in the NFL; what can we do to make a change? Even if you’re just a fan or a parent, it’ s important that you realize that these players aren’t invincible. Educate yourself. They get cuts, scraps, bruises, and break bones, just like everybody else. While you might see them take a hard hit and be taken off of the field in a stretcher with no obvious wounds and walks back out for the next quarter, you need to know that not all injuries are visible. It’s also important that children are taught that you cannot always see a bad injury. The sooner we educate ourselves about the issues and youth are learn that their superheroes can get hurt too, the sooner we can begin to reduce the number of youth heading into the sport with a blind eye towards brain injuries. Even if the NFL stays on the fence about the connection between multiple head injuries and CTE, you can make a difference in your life or your child’s by admitting that these heroes can get hurt, even if you can’t see it. It shouldn’t be considered “unmanly” to have an injury and need to take a seat on the bench. Men who watch out for their selves will be the ones living longer, healthier lives.

While the idea of having a real life superhero is great for children, they still need to understand what internal injuries are, such as traumatic brain jury, since they are seen in nearly player and in every game. It’s not acceptable to walk into a sport as risky as football with a blind eye towards a dark subject. After all, these players are human, just like everybody else.

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