The biggest sport in the United States is getting plenty of attention this offseason; unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the game itself … or does it? There is growing evidence to suggest a link between abnormal social behavior and head injuries sustained from playing football. More specifically, the injuries in question are concussions, and they are plaguing the National Football League .
On January 14, 2012, Aaron Hernandez got a concussion in the New England Patriots 45-10 playoff victory over the Denver Broncos . During a running play from the four-yard line, Hernandez was stopped short of the endzone by linebacker Joe Mays. He was evaluated on the sideline by the medical staff, and later told reporters that he had gotten his “bell rung” on the play. The Patriots later confirmed that he had suffered a concussion, but Hernandez was back at practice the following Wednesday, in preparation for the Patriots’ AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens (in which he played).
In medicine, concussions fall under the category of traumatic brain injury, or TBI. In a 2000 article “Neuropsychiatric Sequelae of Traumatic Brain Injury,” the journal of Psychosomatics asserted that, “TBI is associated with a plethora of cognitive deficits … with impaired judgment and impulse control.” The authors, Vani Rao, M.D. and Constantine Lyketsos, M.D. M.P.H added that “Major depression occurs in approximately 25 percent of patients with TBI. Feelings of loss, demoralization, and discouragement seen soon after injury are often followed by symptoms of persistent dysphoria. Fatigue, irritability, suicidal thoughts, anhedonia … are seen in a substantial number of patients 6-24 months or even longer after TBI.”
How does a millionaire athlete, living his dream life, choose to throw it all away? What logic could explain the desire to relinquish such success, fame and fortune? The answer seemingly lies with concussions and the affect they have on a person’s psyche.
On September 16, 2012, Oakland Raiders star linebacker Rolando McClain suffered a concussion against the Miami Dolphins . Jerry McDonald of the Oakland Tribune and Nate Davis of USA Today reported that McClain played out the rest of the game despite this traumatic brain injury. Though the organization confirmed what had transpired, McClain was back at practice the following Thursday and tied for the team lead in tackles three days later against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the rest of 2012 did not go as well; he did not play in the last five games of the season (and two of which he was suspended by the Raiders for “conduct detrimental to the team”). In January of this year McClain was arrested after a traffic stop for lying to police officers about his identity. In April, he was arrested again and this time charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Brainline.org , a website devoted to “preventing, treating and living with traumatic brain injury (TBI)” published an article titled “Cognitive Problems After Traumatic Brain Injury.” The authors, Dawn Neumann, Ph.D. and Anthony Lequerica, Ph.D. contend that “Individuals with TBI may have difficulty recognizing when there is a problem … when solving problems, they may have difficulty deciding the best solution, or get stuck on one solution and not consider other, better options. They may make quick decisions without thinking about the consequences, or not use the best judgment.”
Former Detroit Lions second-round pick Titus Young had a promising season as a rookie in 2011, scoring six touchdowns. His potential upside as a wide receiver was great, since most opponents would be keying on the Lions’ pro-bowl receiver Calvin Johnson. But things have since unraveled for the 23 year-old. On May 5, Young was arrested for driving under the influence. When he was released from jail some 15 hours later, he jumped a fence, tried to take his car from the impound lot and was arrested again. One week later, Titus Young was caught trying to break into a home in San Clemente, California — this according to Chuck Schilken of the Los Angeles Times. After trying to flee from law enforcement on foot, he got into a fight with the officers and is now charged with attempted burglary, assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.
Richard Young, Titus’ father, believes his son’s conduct stems from having suffered a concussion. After the string of arrests, he spoke with Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, “I look at my son right now, I don’t see my son. That’s not my son. I know my son. Titus is not the boy I really raised, I’m saying the way he acts, the way he intermix in society right now. He shut down, he look through you, it’s like he’s depressed. He don’t like to watch TV, he don’t like to get involved with music that much.” According to Mr. Young, the concussion happened last December and got this unfortunate behavior started. He recalled a conversation with his son in which Titus began to cry and told him, “I just don’t feel good. I’m not myself, I don’t feel good, Dad. I don’t know what’s happening to me.”
There has been little research done on cumulative concussions sustained from adolescence through adulthood. There are certainly no player statistics on high school concussions, and only sparse information on players from the collegiate ranks. Many studies that have evaluated concussion treatment for young athletes concede that treating players for concussions can be extremely difficult if the players themselves keep their injuries a secret (in order to stay on the field).
The pursuit for knowledge on traumatic brain injury is gaining momentum, however. “Frontline,” the outstanding news and documentary program by PBS , has begun to track the evolving history of concussions in the NFL. Their ongoing story, called “Concussion Watch,” counted 170 total concussions in the NFL last season. Frontline has also been reporting on a case between the NFL and 4,200 former players who are suing the league for neglecting to disclose TBI-related information. Judge Anita Brody has ordered both parties into mediation and has assigned a retired federal judge – Layn Phillips, to serve as a mediator. The NFL had motioned to dismiss the case – an obvious igniter of emotions for these former players.
This NFL season is scheduled to begin on September 5. High school and college seasons will begin around the same time. The game of football is setting new heights in popularity. The game is also getting faster, and the hits are getting stronger. With no revolution in equipment design, the hits are going to create the same damage as they have been, at least for one more year. Parents and fans are going to have to hold their collective breath, as they weather the storm of another football season. When interviewed after the game against Miami, Rolando McClain told McDonald, “There was a time where I thought, ‘I don’t feel like myself.'”