On the eve of the Super Bowl, two new cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy — the brain damage associated with multiple concussions — have been in the news. Commentator Bill Littlefield remembers — sort of — one of his worst days as an intramural athlete, and wonders why it's taking so long for physicians associated with teams to acknowledge the obvious.
On a cold autumn day almost forty years ago, I found myself rubbing the back of my head, wondering how I'd come to be on the sideline at an intramural soccer game.
It turned out that a bit earlier that afternoon, I'd been playing in that game. Witnesses established that I'd been kicked in the back of the head and fallen to the ground, but I'd gotten right up and kept playing, which had led my teammates to assume I was fine.
After a while, I'd jogged off the field and asked somebody to go in for me. Shortly thereafter, I'd found myself on the sideline, rubbing my head, wondering how I'd gotten to the game.
Attention was paid. I was taken to the college infirmary. A young doctor looked me in the eye and asked," Who is the President of the United States?"
I was dismayed to recall that it was Richard Nixon, but the young doctor regarded my correct answer as good news.
"You've suffered a concussion," he told me. "No more soccer this fall. In fact, don't do anything where you might get hit in the head again for at least a couple of months."
"In two weeks I have to take the road test for my motorcycle license," I told him. "What about that?"
"No way," he said. "Reschedule."
I haul out this anecdote to establish that in 1969 a young doctor who had no more specialized in neuropathology than I had specialized in soccer knew enough to tell me that getting hit in the head again shortly after suffering a concussion would be a very bad move.
For the National Football League to fail to acknowledge even now a direct link between the brain damage players have suffered and the multiple concussions that are essentially occupational hazards in their work is at best disingenuous, and perhaps criminally irresponsible.
Since at least 1969, when I was told to avoid contact sports not just until I could recall the name of the president and my headache went away but for a period of months, even doctors who weren't specialists have assumed that concussions suffered in quick succession could be dangerous.
Over the past forty years, research into this matter has provided evidence of irreversible, debilitating brain damage in men who've been hit in the head again and again, even when they weren't diagnosed with concussions.
For anybody responsible for the health and welfare of people who make their living running into each other to maintain that this issue is still open for debate seems, well, brain damaged.
This program aired on January 29, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.