After some time off, America’s most popular sport is back – and stronger than ever. The NFL says that nearly 106 million people watched Week One football games on television. Three nationally televised games alone had more than 23 million viewers each.
The only thing that could seemingly bring the sport down is player safety.
More studies are being released on how years of hard hits affect the brain.
“Several athletes have committed suicide and have donated their brain [for scientific study],” said Henry Echiverri, MD, a neurologist at Edward Hospital.
In 2011, former NFL defensive back Dave Duerson died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. In his suicide note, Duerson requested that his brain be evaluated for brain trauma. This year, former NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in a similar fashion.
“[When] studying their brain postmortem, [doctors are] realizing that so much damage has occurred,” said Echiverri.
Edward Hospital recently invited athletes, coaches and parents to a discussion with two of the hospital’s top concussion experts – Echiverri and Mohammad Sajed, MD.
Talks centered on how to properly diagnose a concussion, and how soon a player can get back on the field.
“Coaches are more aware of the fact that they can do a rapid assessment on the sideline,” said Echiverri. “[They] have been making better decisions on when they allow the athlete to go back.”
Safer helmets are doing a better job of protecting the head, but players are still getting concussions.
In fact, more than 2,000 NFL players are suing the league because they weren’t warned of the long-term risks of playing the game.
But some pros say the risk is worth it.
“If you want to play football, or if you’re a parent and you want your child to play football, this is one of the things that you have to accept,” said NFL defensive lineman Brian Schaefering, who was recently released by the Cleveland Browns. “There’s a chance that it’s going to happen.”
“My grandma doesn’t really want me to play all too much because she’s nervous,” said AJ Thomas, a tight end on the North Central College football team. “You talk about it, and sometimes you just have to reassure them that you’re okay and hope that everything is going well.”
The newfound media attention on concussions is making players more aware of the problem and giving them options.
“They reinvent themselves,” said Echiverri. “Perhaps go back to the drawing board and analyze what else they can do with their life.”
That’s just what Augustana College junior Ben Humbert did. After suffering a concussion playing football at the end of his freshman year, Humbert voluntarily hung up his pads for the final time. He now studies sports medicine.
“It was really difficult as a player playing for eight years – that was half of my life,” said Humbert. “And being able to get integrated in a different way, such as sports medicine, really helped me cope with that and still being [able to be] with the team.”
It’s tough to tell whether health issues will affect the sport’s popularity in the long run, but for now, football is still on top.
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