By Gene Veritas
As America prepares to celebrate the annual ritual of brutal
competition known as the Super Bowl, the negative consequences of football on
the brain have come under intense scrutiny.
On January 23, the family of Junior Seau – the famed
43-year-old former linebacker who committed suicide last May after 20 seasons
of professional play – sued the National Football League
(NFL) over the damage
to Seau’s brain caused by concussions.
The family’s action came less than two weeks after the news
that researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studying tissue
from his donated brain, determined that he had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy
(CTE), a degenerative brain disease.
Junior Seau in the uniform of his final team, the New England Patriots
In recent years, studies of the brains of dozens of other
deceased players, including two who killed themselves, have revealed CTE.
Since August 2011, some 190 brain-damage suits have been
filed representing more than 4,000 former players alleging negligence by the
NFL. A federal court has consolidated those suits. The Seau family has not
decided whether it will enter the joint suit.
The HD community’s
Like few others, those of us in the Huntington’s disease
community comprehend the brain’s vulnerabilities.
In addition to many other problems, all of the symptoms seen
in Seau occur with HD.
Suicide is also all too familiar to the HD community: it is the second leading cause of death
in HD patients.
Over some 15 years, I watched HD rob my mother’s ability to
walk, talk, think, and eat, reducing her to a mere shadow of herself as it
killed her brain cells.
Since learning of my own risk for the disease in 1995, and
especially after testing positive for the HD gene in 1999, I have strived to
prevent the inevitable onset of symptoms by practicing good brain health (click here
to read more) and learning how HD harms the brain (as reflected in
numerous articles in this blog).
A more critical view
I’ve followed football on and off since my childhood in
Ohio, where high school, college and professional football are hugely popular.
When the San Diego Chargers – where Seau played 13 seasons – began supporting
the HD cause in the late 1990s, I renewed my interest in the sport (click here
to read about my enthusiasm).
However, as my knowledge of brain degeneration increased, I
developed a more critical view of football’s violent nature. Nowadays I wince
when I see a player hit hard on the head.
I don’t wish on anybody the ravages of HD – nor the
degeneration of the brain that can occur from head injuries, whether from a
bomb blast, a hockey punch, or a devastating tackle. President Obama recently said
that, “if I had a son, I’d have to think
long and hard before I let him play football.” I too am glad my daughter is not
at risk to play a violent sport, although I do worry when she competes on the soccer field.
During remarks at the 2011 gala of the San Diego chapter of
the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA-San Diego), NFL Commissioner
Roger Goodell recognized the need to make football “safer.”
Needed: a national
It may be impossible for public opinion to remove the fatal
violence from a multi-billion-dollar industry that enthralls tens of millions
of fans and resonates with our often bellicose culture. In the words of one
observer, pro football is “America’s favorite blood sport.”
However, the player lawsuits could affect the owners’ profit
margins, harm the league’s prestige, and force some measure of reform.
In response to the burgeoning concern about head injuries,
the NFL last September donated $30 million to the NIH for research on the brain
and other medical issues. In addition, as required by its collective bargaining
agreement with the players’ association, the league has also announced an
additional $100 million in planned spending on medical research.
In a commentary on the 2011 HDSA-San Diego gala, I expressed hope
that the “NFL will make brain research a national priority at a time when
HD, Alzheimer’s, and other brain disorders are beginning to strain our
resources with a massive caregiving burden. Goodell, the NFL teams, and the
league hold great sway in our society and have the power to mobilize people in
a grand cause.”
Indeed, we need much more than $130 million and an NFL
commissioner for this effort. We need a national campaign for the brain,
including education about brain health and incentives for young people to
become brain researchers.
As we cheer on the players on Super Sunday, let’s also
remember the devastating impacts of business as usual – and to cheer for the
protection of our most important natural resource: our brains.
Tags: Huntington's, football, brain, suicide, National Football League, National Institutes of Health, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, depression, mood swings, insomnia, symptoms, mother, daughter, testing positive, onset, Chargers, degeneration, research, Alzheimer's