A very fresh debate is taking place in the United States regarding whether or not parents would or should allow their sons and daughters to play contact sports that have been proven to be the root cause of not just concussions, but serious physical and emotional problems and issues that may not arise until later in life. Basically, how do parents say to their sons "you cannot play football because it is too dangerous." How can and do parents keep their children safe but do not become "dictatorial" in what their sons and daughters can and cannot do. This serious question arises after being brought to the forefront of discussion by the recent movie Concussion (starring Wil Smith as American immigrant Dr. Bennet Omalu, noted neurological expert who began his career at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon Universisty).
Dr. Omalu's background
Dr. Omalu received his MB, BS [M.D.] degree from the University of Nigeria in 1991. He received his MPH [Masters in Public Health] degree in Epidemiology from University of Pittsburgh in 2004. He also received his MBA [Masters in Business Administration] degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2008. Dr. Omalu holds four board certifications in Anatomic Pathology, Clinical Pathology, Forensic Pathology and Neuropathology. Dr. Omalu is also board certified in Medical Management and is a Certified Physician Executive [CPE].
Dr. Omalu was the first to identify, describe and name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy [CTE] as a disease entity in football players and wrestlers. He is currently the Chief Medical Examiner of San Joaquin County, California, and is the President and Medical Director of Bennet Omalu Pathology. He also serves as a Clinical Professor and Associate Physician Diplomate at the UC, Davis Medical Center, Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.
The Issue as I see it
After the release of the movie, and after the colossal discussion that has been a continued dialogue regarding those harmful aspects of contact sports that are not in many cases prevalent "at the time" of the injury, but those that manifest themselves later on in adult life, how does a parent tell her son that he can no longer compete in football because it is too violent and may indeed have a life altering effect on his life as he turns 30, 40, 50 years of age?
There exists no doubt that professional and college football is an extremely violent sport. A game doesn't go by even watched by casual viewers where at each and every game someone is carried, carted, or wheeled off the field of play with an injury that may be career threatening.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Those who died too soon by Paul Vigna
A chronological list of the former Steelers who have died since 2000 under age 60.
- Steve Furness: Feb. 9, 2000, 49, heart attack.
- Tyrone McGriff: Dec. 9, 2000, 42, heart attack.
- Joe Gilliam: Dec. 25, 2000, 49, heart attack.
- Mike Webster: Sept. 24, 2002, 50, heart attack.
- Ron Shanklin: April 17, 2003, 55, cancer.
- Fred Small: June 24, 2003, 39, his motorcycle collided with two carson the Pomona (Calif.) Freeway.
- James Parrish: March 10, 2004, 35, cancer.
- Justin Strzelczyk: Sept. 30, 2004, 36, an accident in Herkimer, N.Y., when his car hit a truck while eluding police.
- David Little: March 17, 2005, 46, heart arrhythmia, when a barbell he was lifting fell on his chest and then rolled onto his neck, suffocating him.
- Terry Long: June 7, 2005, 45, committed suicide by drinking antifreeze.
- Ray Oldham: July 23, 2005, 54, heart attack while on a bike ride.
- Steve Courson: Nov. 10, 2005, 50, when a tree he was cutting down fell on him at his home.
- Dave Brown: Jan. 10, 2006, 52, had an apparent heart attack whileplaying basketball with his son.
- Jim Clack: April 7, 2006, 58, heart failure after a 4-year battle with cancer.
- Theo Bell: June 21, 2006, 52, after a yearlong battle withkidney disease and scleroderma.
- Ernie Holmes: Jan. 17, 2008, 59, in an accident when his car left the road and rolled several times.
- Dwight White: June 6, 2008, 58, complications from earlier surgery.
- Additionally, Ernie Stautner, 80, complications related to Alzheimer's disease.
Additionally, please read the following article published by the Los Angeles Times in 2009 and carried in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review - TRIBLIVE SPORTS: (It's worth the read). Here's an excerpt from the article:
One was lifting weights at home. Another was training for a triathlon. A third was watching a game at a friend's house. Regular guys doing regular things. Then there were the others. One drank antifreeze. Another was in a high-speed chase [speeding the wrong way on a divided highway. Two things in common among all:They were Pittsburgh Steelers; and they died in the last six years....Steve Courson, 50, was killed outside his Farmington, Pa., home in November while trying to remove a 44-foot tree from his property. The former guard was crushed while apparently trying to save his dog, after a gust of wind changed the direction of the falling tree. His black Labrador retriever was found alive, tangled in Courson's legs. In March 2005, David Little was bench-pressing weights alone at his Miami home when the coroner determined he suffered a heart arrhythmia, causing the 46-year-old former linebacker to drop a 250-pound barbell on his chest. The bar rolled across his neck and suffocated him. Terry Long, 45, an offensive guard whose eight-year career was derailed by a positive test for steroids, committed suicide in Pittsburgh in June 2005 by drinking antifreeze. Twice divorced, he had serious legal problems stemming from his failed food-processing business and had made two previous suicide attempts. The youngest of the Steelers to die was 36-year-old Justin Strzelczyk, a tackle who had a series of run-ins with the law after he retired. He died after a 40-mile, high-speed chase on the New York Thruway in September 2004. Driving his Ford F-250 pickup at speeds in excess of 100 mph, Strzelczyk made obscene gestures and tossed beer bottles at the police following him. The chase came to a fiery end when, while on the wrong side of the road, he slammed into a tanker truck.
I couldn't help but really believe that if you do watch the movie and understand the underlying message more than just the story that takes on the screen, but the real story that is playing itself out on football fields, soccer fields, basketball courts, and other sports venues that are in fact damaging the minds of our young. Is the point making it to the "smart" parents, students, and coaches. In some places, it is. Consider the case of Mars football standout John Costello who turned down a number of scholarships to play football, and, instead, decided to play basketball:
Finally, a personal caveat exists to this story in that of my son, Stefan, who received two serious concussions playing not football but basketball at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School in Moon.
Stefan received the first of his major concussions at the mid-point of his junior year in high school. After having an excellent first half of the season and helping the OLSH Chargers make their way to the playoffs, he received an innocent elbow to the temple in practice by a teammate. The elbow hit just the right soft spot on his temple and knocked him out. He never fully recovered for the second half of the season, playing in the last five games, but only as a shell of himself.
He played basketball extremely hard from 3rd grade, was tutored and played for some of the best coaches in the area, including John Miller and Mike Rodriguez. Like the style that is the trademark for these coaches, he played hard and he played tough. In spite of his wiry 6"3" frame, he not only was an accomplished point guard and shooter, but he played both offense and defense with reckless abandoned. He was the type of player who could go to the hoop effortlessly, but this effortless driving to the basket meant being bounced around many times like a pinball in the paint near the basket. I would estimate that for every five times down the court running the offence, he would end up being pushed or bumped out of bounds and off the court at least one or two of those five times. His body had a resiliency that goes along with playing hard-nosed basketball.
However, in the beginning of the season his senior year, in practice, he was inadvertently hit again in the same temple and suffered the second of his major concussions, which kept him from playing the entire first half of the season, and again, upon his return, he wasn't himself. I thought of all of those times he was pushed, shoved, and literally, a few times, thrown out of the way by opposing players; however, an innocent bump in the temple became his bane. He was out again for half of the season, and, again, when he returned, he was not the fighter on the court he was prior to the concussion.
But, some of the things we noticed at home was going on in Stefan's brain that were different from the past. He was lethargic at times. He kept to himself. He was angry. He was moody. He was sad. He was quick to argue. And he felt that no one believed that he was in pain. It was extremely difficult to watch him. We had him visit concussion experts, neurosurgeons, and psychiatrists, and psychologists. We were told the same thing by all of them. There was nothing they could do for him other than a few medications that would ease his pain. The one thing we learned was to be patient and to support him when he wasn't feeling well.
When college time rolled around and he was still being recruited by some very high level Division 3 schools, he finally had to make an informed decision to quit basketball all together. We discussed this intently with him and worked with him knowing that if he took another hit to the temple or head, he may end up much worse than the prior two times. He felt that dedicating his time to "non-contact academia" and getting a college degree in Petroleum Engineering was more important than being a basketball star. As he had been, he would continue to be a star in the classroom but not on the court.
Prior to the movie "The Concussion" appearing in theaters, my wife, Stefan, and I knew the effects and the affects of consistent blows to the head. We were committed to this not happening again. Now beginning his senior year at Marietta College in Ohio, he has been in contact with Marietta's basketball coach and had an open invitation to join the team any time he felt he could contribute, even during his final year. Our discussions didn't last long. He wold ask "What do you think, dad. Should I play my senior year?" Our collective response was to think about it for about two minutes and then say "it really isn't worth it." If he were to sustain another concussion, who knows what would happen to him after another hit to the head. Could it kill him? We don't know. Would it change his life drastically? We believe it would. And nursing a concussion back to health engaging in an extremely competitive and difficult course load of 18 credits wasn't an option he (or we) were ready to weather. No more basketball or contact sports for him. He'd have to be content with golf and other non-contact sports for the rest of his life.
And living with the trauma of yet another concussion was just out of the question.
I was reading a story about the great Boston College and professional quarterback Doug Flutie and his stint on "Dancing with the Stars." Being athletic, Flutie has been doing a great job keeping up and moving forward on the dance floor. But what I did read about Flutie was that he has been a difficult student because he "forgets" and "cannot remember" his routines. I decided to watch this program, and sure enough a segment on the show came up showing him going through his grueling dance practices. He did indeed keep "forgetting" his next move. Under normal circumstances, it would mean nothing. But throw in Flutie's 20 plus years of hard hitting college and professional football, and then think of CTE and the athletes listed above, it became more of a sad commentary not on aging, but on aging with the knowledge that he may indeed be suffering from being hit in the head during his many years in football. I am not saying that Flutie has CTE or anything like that. I don't know that and no reports have come out that he is suffering. But I could see the frustration on his face when he did forget. Flutie is a highly trained athlete who played a high functioning position against brutal competition and did well. To see him forget dance moves was sad, in my opinion.
Finally, I was reading a story about Antwaan Randle El, former Pittsburgh Steeler. In a January 20, 2016 story written by Luke Kerr-Dineen entitled Antwaan Randle El is Proof that Roger Goodell and the NFL are in Deep Trouble:
Antwaan Randle El, the former quarterback-turned-Super Bowl-winning receiver, provided another moment of acceleration for a story line that has been ripping through the NFL recently. Amid the release of Concussion and yet more traces of CTE being found in the brains of football players of all levels, Randle El provided this tragic piece of insight to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t,” he said. “I would play baseball. I got drafted by the Cubs in the 14th round, but I didn’t play baseball because of my parents. They made me go to school. Don’t get me wrong, I love the game of football. But, right now, I could still be playing baseball.”
He went on to explain how some days he has trouble walking down the stairs, and that recently he’s felt his mind slipping away. “I just told you that,” his wife tells him evermore frequently.
There are lots of issues surrounding stories like Randle El’s, but they’re all an extension of two central problems.
Randle El is 36 years old.