The NFL draft, which began its first round on Thursday at 8 p.m., is a glamorous affair. Expert TV and film production, intense media coverage, crying mothers and teary-eyed 200-plus pound men finding out they've been picked for the majors will make this "an exceptional spectacle even by the event's rather absurd standards."
2014's draft will likely launch some high-profile careers and put college football players on the path to stardom. Everyone from potential first-pick Jadeveon Clowney to Mizzou defensive lineman Michael Sam, potentially the NFL's first openly gay player, are vying for a slot. Top picks are already getting endorsement deals, with athletes getting paid to sign on with Puma, Nike, Under Armour and Adidas.
But while this year's draftees are entering an NFL more successful and profitable than ever, the focus on big hits and players getting better at delivering those hits has made the always-violent sport more intense each year. And while injuries have fallen dramatically since the classic helmet was introduced in the '70s, former players are finding themselves with long-lasting brain conditions that might persist for the rest of their lives.
Today's crop of young NFL stars are entering into a profession which will likely see them incur devastating brain injuries. By the time these players are done with the NFL, their health troubles will be just beginning, all because of a game that puts a premium on violent contact.
Brain scans performed last year on five former NFL players found images of the protein that causes football-related brain damage, the first time researchers were able to find concrete evidence that years of tackles and hits have created crippling conditions in ex-players.
The disease, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), has been identified in 34 former NFL players and others who played in different leagues. It's caused by repeated head trauma that leads to a buildup of tau, an abnormal protein that strangles brain cells. CTE has been linked from everything from memory loss and depression to dementia and explosive behavior. CTE was found in the brain of former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who killed himself in May 2012 by a gunshot to the chest.
In the scans, tau was found in areas that control memory, emotions and other functions, in patterns very similar to those identified in the autopsies of CTE patients.
Image Credit: Washington University
The scans were only taken on five former NFL players, meaning that they weren't conclusive proof of anything. But in November, UCLA researchers diagnosed two Pro Football Hall of Famers (Tony Dorsett and Joe DeLamielleure) and former NFL All-Pro Leonard Marshall with CTE.
Another study published in October found "some of the most pronounced abnormalities in brain activity" that lead study author Dr. Adam Hampshire had ever seen. Thirteen former NFL players saying that they were suffering from neurological problems were compared to 60 volunteers. All were asked to complete a simple task: rearranging colored balls in as few moves as possible. The NFL players performed worse, and fMRIs taken during the test showed unusual patterns of brain activity in their frontal lobe.
"The critical fact is that the level of brain abnormality correlates strongly with the measure of head impacts of great enough severity to warrant being taken out of play," said Hampshire. "This means that it is highly likely that damage caused by blows to the head accumulate towards an executive impairment in later life."
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While another physiologist acknowledged that study had limitations (it didn't compare scans of the athletes before and after their injuries), no reliable method is available to detect minor traumatic brain injuries while a person is alive. It's very difficult for doctors to find evidence of brain damage until it stacks up enough to become noticeable, and predicting long-term effects is basically impossible. A study commissioned by the NFL in 2009 found a risk of Alzheimer's disease or similar memory-related conditions appeared in former players at a risk 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 to 49. Of former players aged 50 or older, 6.1% reported a dementia-related diagnosis, five times higher than the national rate of 1.2%.
Image Credit: UCLA
New York Magazine noted how in 2011, Jets linebacker Bart Scott talked about his career in the NFL "like an old coal miner with black lung." He said, "I don't want my son to play football. I play football so he won't have to. With what is going on, I don't know if it's really worth it. … I don't want to have to deal with him getting a concussion and what it would be like later in life."
Boston University neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee says she's seen signs of CTE in 47 of 48 brains of deceased NFL players she's studied. Former NFL players say they know their condition was caused by taking repeated blows to the head, like Dorsett, who says his hardest tackle was like "a Mac truck hitting a Volkswagon ... [the tackle] just blew me up."
"I've thought about crazy stuff, sort of like, 'Why do I need to continue going through this?'" said Dorsett. "I'm too smart of a person, I like to think, to take my life, but it's crossed my mind."
Pro-bowl linebacker Junior Seau suffered from CTE and later took his own life. Image Credit: AP
Despite the compelling evidence that playing in the NFL can lead to serious neurological conditions, players are still under immense pressure to struggle through it. An AP review found that 23 of 44 NFL players would conceal a concussion to stay in the game in 2011, even though they were more aware of the possible damage. Former NFL player Sean Morey, who now suffers from post-concussion syndrome, says that he had suffered a number of concussions "somewhere in the high 20s," including four in one game in his last season. "You know, I was pretty reluctant to admit how many I'd had," he told NPR.
"You want to continue to play. You're a competitor. You're not going to tell on yourself. There have been times I've been dinged, and they've taken my helmet from me, and ... I'd snatch my helmet back and get back on the field," said Washington Redskins linebacker Mike Sellers. "A lot of guys wouldn't say anything because a lot of guys wouldn't think anything during the game, until afterward, when they have a headache or they can't remember certain things.
They want more supervision to keep them from their own urges: More than two-thirds said in the same survey that consulting neurologists should be present on the sidelines. But while the league conceded in 2009 that there was a scientifically established link between football and long-term brain damage, after fighting the evidence for years, it hasn't acknowledged the issue since. That's likely because of the potential costs in lawsuits, like one settled with 4,500-plus former players in 2013 for $765 million. That case is still being contested by players who insist they're not being given enough to cover the long-term costs of playing in the NFL.
But whether or not such an agreement or decision is made is almost secondary to the fact that as long as the NFL and football in general continues to become more violent and vicious, these brain injuries will continue to be a major problem that needs to be seriously addressed.