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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The NFL Retirement Package


      Everyday, science evolves with advancements in technology. We live at a time when we can utilize both of these things in our daily decision making processes. Should we go to the coffee shop for our caffeine fix? Can we track our energy expenditure on our iPhones with the latest app? 
      What about the decision to take 5,000 "freight train" hits to the head over the span of a career within the NFL? The book League of Denial, by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, gives us the inside look at some of the most horrific and tragic stories surrounding former NFL players who essentially took too many hits to the head.
      The book exploits the deep dark corners of the NFL leadership team; who denied the early science of repeated blunt force head trauma being directly related to concussions and long term neurological complications. These conditions included dementia, bipolar disorder and chronic depression. As I read this book I realized quickly that these serious conditions are directly related to the high impact hits during an NFL career. The most compelling story Fainaru writes about is the story of Troy Aikman. Everyone knows Troy was one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks to ever put his hand on a football. During the 1979 Superbowl against the Buffalo Bills, Aikman took such a hard hit in the first half (after an entire season of hard hits). Aikman told the coaches he was okay for the second half and that he could play. Aikman's family learned years later that he had no recollection of the second half of that game. He did not remember leading his team to a Superbowl victory.
        Now, if that doesn't shock you then double check if you are human. Stories like Aikman's started popping up all across the United States in the 90's and are still arising today. Men who once stood as 'gods' of the game, who were regarded as some of strongest men on the planet, suddenly losing their minds and becoming 'hollow' at an increasing rate. These were stories of Hall of Fame players who could not even write their own speeches at their own event. 
        Not only do Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru document these stories, they also break the book down into subcategories of the evolution of the science. Sport science has come a long way from where surrounding what we once knew about the origins of concussions and the initial IMPact tests. Dissenters within the NFL pushed player concussions to the sidelines. Even when Goodall realized he inherited a storm by becoming NFL commissioner, he then put together an 'internal' team of neurologists to publish concussion and impact based research. It was not until the early 2000's that the NFL realized they needed to change benefit plans for retired NFL players, help fund new helmet research, and change the rules of the game. Astro turf fields started disappearing and rule changes within the practice setting minimized the majority of high impact hits that players were taking.
      The bottom line here is that League of Denial is not just a biased book which shows one side of a multi faceted issue in the largest sports based industry in the world; it is a well documented- researched based book which shows how research led to major changes in the NFL. These changes are still evolving, as will the sport. One comforting thing is that the NFL has recognized and admitted to the fact that there is a direct connection between repeated high impact hits, sustained concussions and post retirement player deterioration. 
     I encourage any coach, and any parent who has kids playing football, to read this book. If nothing else, it will educate you on what to look for with concussions and how the latest research has transformed the sport.

Ryan Fahey

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