For the millions of fans who tune in to National Football League games each week, brutal tackles are an integral – and thrilling – aspect of the game. But reports from former players that repetitive blows to the head, built up over a career, are resulting in memory loss, depression and dementia later in life are causing some to question the future of the sport.
In Athens, Ga., the heart of football country, ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser found love for the game – and the big hits – as high as ever.
“I think we’re quite frankly getting fairly soft in this country,” said Mark Richt, head football coach at the University of Georgia and a father of four. “I think our kids are soft. I don’t think they’re very tough.”
Despite his high regard for the physicality of the game, Richt realizes that concussions are a serious issue and he fully supports research into making the game safer. His team, along with several others, is using cutting-edge concussion meter helmets to help identify the forces that cause concussions.
“I think all these things that are being designed to help us understand more about concussions and those types of injuries, I think the better off we’re going to be,” Richt said.
Today’s players also benefit from changes to the game designed to make it less dangerous, safety rules which were not in place when former Buffalo Bills offensive lineman and Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure was playing.
“We played on AstroTurf that was torn up. There’s no [more] head slaps, I’ve got 68 percent hearing loss in my left ear,” he told George Stephanopoulos on ‘This Week’ on Sunday as part of a panel on concussions in football. “There’s no more chop blocks, there’s no more wedge. It used to be called the suicide squad, the special teams.”
Dr. Ann McKee, a leading neuropathologist at Boston University and a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan, studies chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head traumas, in the brains of deceased football players.
“I see tragic stories under the microscope,” she told Besser in an interview for “This Week.” “I see kids who’ve died in their teens with the early stages of this disease. It’s really quite unsettling.”
In August, a lawsuit brought against the NFL by more than 4,500 former players, who claimed the league withheld information on the dangers of concussions, was settled for $765 million. The settlement was reached on the understanding that the NFL admitted no fault.
ESPN investigative reporter and co-author of “League of Denial” Mark Fainaru-Wada is concerned the amount won’t be enough for the number of players who are suffering. The settlement has yet to be approved by a judge.
“You’ve got lawyers and players who are really frustrated, not getting any answers despite the announcement of a big settlement prior to the season starting,” Fainaru-Wada said on Sunday. “We’re now in week 12 [of the season] and there are virtually no details about the settlement at this point.”
DeLamielleure, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, was recently diagnosed with having signs of CTE.
“I feel betrayed by the NFL and the union because we had no health insurance,” DeLamielleure said Sunday. “That’s the problem for the guys who played before ’93.”
Nor was DeLamielleure as generously compensated for putting his body on the line as players are today. A number one draft pick, his annual salary didn’t rise above $30,000.
DeLamielleure credits the league with making attempts to improve the safety of the game, but says their efforts don’t go far enough. “I think they’re doing the right thing, but for them to continue to do the right thing they have to make it better for the guys who created this monstrosity of a league,” he said.
In recent years a number of ex-NFL players have committed suicide, including former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling and former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau. The brains of all three players showed signs of CTE.
But despite the mounting evidence that concussions pose a serious health risk, for some players the benefits of playing football outweigh the potentially devastating consequences.
“At my first day of football, if you were to say ‘We’re going to guarantee three concussions, but we’re going to pay for five years of your schooling and you’re going to get however many degrees,’ I’m saying, ‘Absolutely,’” one Georgia Bulldogs player told Besser. “For three concussions? I’m taking it. That’s not a bad deal at all.”