Last week the NFL and more than 4,500 professional football players reached a tentative agreement on a $765 million out-of-court settlement on a case about concussions.
Research looking at the most extreme result of repeated hits to the head, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, have discovered that it presents as either depression or character and mood changes when it develops early, or severe memory loss in later life, as in dementia. Everyone agrees that a lot more research needs to be done to fully understand the impairments suffered by professional athletes like football players, boxers and hockey players.
Dr. David Crumbie is a specialist in Sports Medicine at UT Health Sciences Center in Houston. “A concussion is a brain injury, meaning that the contact absorbed has short-circuited the brain in how it cognitively functions. What we believe is that exposure to head-hits, or multiple concussions, as in boxing, leads to degeneration or atrophy of the brain tissue, it gets smaller, and that leads to further cognitive difficulty or challenges. The gamut of symptoms can be very minor in how one may function in daily activities, to extremes where you have trouble breathing or functioning at all, and you need maximum assistance to do the simplest of activities every day. We’re in the development stage of finding out the extent chronic traumatic encephalopathy can have on a patient. We see it more and more frequently in our former football players and boxers who experienced many severe head-hits.”
Greg Koch played in the NFL for 11 seasons, most of those years with the legendary Green Bay Packers, where he has been honored with membership into the team’s Hall of Fame. He was a tackle and a guard, and gave as many hard hits to the head as he received. Now he’s paying the price.
“I have idiopathic REM sleep disorder, which means I walk in my sleep. I’ll punch or choke my wife, I act out football games in my sleep where I throw myself out of bed or through a plate glass window, so I’m actually a danger to myself or those around me. They can control it with medication but that is from repetitive head trauma.”
N.D. Kalu played for the Rice Owls before he was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles. Then came the Redskins and the Texans, all with hits to the head. Kalu thinks the NFL has been hiding what they know about the long-term consequences of playing football.
“I think most people think you know what you’re getting into when you sign up to play football, and when it comes to broken limbs, or broken backs, even God-forbid a broken neck, we all know there’s a chance for that. But I don’t think anyone felt like early dementia or CTE was a part of playing football.”
Dr. Crumbie thinks rules changes decreasing the amount of head trauma, and the opportunity for that kind of contact to happen, will offer “the biggest bang for our buck. You can see the rules changes on every level now. Most important is how we implement those changes, at the grass roots level, so that coaches from pee-wee all the way up are telling you to keep you head out of it. That will have the biggest benefit for all of us.”
If they knew then what they know now, would Koch or Kalu have done anything differently?
“No, because I love the sport so much,” Kalu says. “I probably would have talked myself into thinking that won’t happen to me.”
“Not at all. That’s the problem,” Koch adds. “I would have done it all again. You’re living a fantasy most men only dream about.”