Over the last several months, there has been a major initiative by some doctors and former NFL players to review, analyze, and develop a plan for how to prevent or limit what is known as “traumatic brain encephalopathy” (injury to the brain caused by repeated blows to the head). On February 20, 2011, this condition was in the spotlight when Dave Duerson, a former star safety for the Chicago Bears, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen. Duerson specifically shot himself in the abdomen to ensure that his brain could be examined–a brain that he was convinced was diseased from many years of teeth shattering blows to the head. Duerson was involved in more than 550 tackles during his playing career with the Chicago Bears and New York Giants.
It has been shown that approximately 20 former professional football players died at a young age from brain damage associated with traumatic brain encephalopathy. This figure also includes Mike Webster, (known as “Iron Mike” during his playing career) a hall of fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who died of a heart attack after years of depression, financial losses, and multiple suicide attempts. Neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who at the time of Webster’s death was in the Pittsburgh Medical Examiner’s Office, found that Webster’s brain had large deposits of “tau”, a protein which is in the brain’s microskeleton. According to research, with repeated head trauma, tau loses its self repairing ability and begins to accumulate, causing tangles and threads in the neocortex which can mimic the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Dr. Omalu is of the firm opinion that due to the significant risks of brain disease from repeated head trauma, infants under the age of 18 should not play football, and stated in an interview that “There is no reason, no medical justification, for any child younger than 18 to play football, period.” He also noted that: “The brain is not fully developed until about age 18. Impact to the head in younger people may not cause any obvious damage that could be seen on CT or MRI, but on the cellular, epigenetic level there is damage.”
Since the 1920’s, doctors have known that repeated trauma to the brain could lead to neurologic and cognitive deterioration that many boxers suffered from, known initially as “dementia pugilistica.” At one time, the assumption was that former athletes who became depressed, abused drugs and lost their families and fortunes were simply not able to cope with life after the glory and adulation of professional sports. But with numerous cases of traumatic brain encephalopathy being reported in football players, hockey players, boxers and military members over the last several years, Boston University established a research institute known as the Center for the Study of Encephalopathy to more thoroughly investigate the effect of repeated head trauma in athletes.
A report published in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology in 2009 evaluated 5 football players and 30 boxers who were dying at very young ages–the football players at age 44 on average and the boxers at age 60. The symptoms they experienced included severe mood disturbances, memory loss, and aggressiveness. Four of the five football players died tragically in suicides, a high speed car chase, and a gunshot wound. The Boston Institute has started a “brain bank” with approximately 100 living players agreeing to donate their brains for research purposes when they die to study chronic traumatic encephalopathy further.
In a more recent development adding further credence to the theory of trauma induced brain injury in professional athletes, in the last 4 months, 3 professional hockey players have committed suicide. Each of these players were known as “enforcers”, and blows to the head were both expected and routine, leading to numerous concussions. Wade Belak, the 35 year old forward for the Nashville Predators hanged himself on August 31 in Toronto; 27 year old former Winnipeg Jet Rick Rypien committed suicide in August; and 28 year old former New York Ranger Derek Boogaard took a fatal drug overdose in May. Belak fought 136 times in his 549 game career in the N.H.L, and assessed 1,263 penalty minutes.
To force the NFL’s hand on dangers which have been known for many years but not properly addressed, 7 former NFL players filed a class action lawsuit in July of 2011, contending that the league failed to properly treat concussions and attempted to cover up the connection between playing football and developing brain injuries. We intend to closely follow the progress of this case and its implications for athletes across the United States at all levels of football, hockey and other contact sports.
Contact the Westchester County Brain Injury Lawyers at the White Plains, New York Law Office Of Mark A. Siesel online or toll free at 888-761-7633 if you or a loved one suffer a head or brain injury in a car accident, slip and fall accident, playing sports, or in any other fashion for a free consultation with an experienced trial attorney to discuss your case in detail.