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Dementia rates skyrocket for NFL players

By Christopher Cassavecca
On November 18, 2009

  • Brockport sophomore Connor McJury is an exercise science major and avid reader of Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness magazines. McJury has made it into the top eight finalists for “Fit Man on Campus.”. Photo by Rebecca Puretz/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
  • Brockport sophomore Connor McJury is an exercise science major and avid reader of Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness magazines. McJury has made it into the top eight finalists for “Fit Man on Campus.”. Photo by Rebecca Puretz/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
  • Brockport sophomore Connor McJury is an exercise science major and avid reader of Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness magazines. McJury has made it into the top eight finalists for “Fit Man on Campus.”. Photo by Rebecca Puretz/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Football is a game of physical contact, and on every play, a player puts his body at risk of injury. Many of these athletes have suffered at least one concussion during their career, and most of them are living a life of pain because of it.National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell, and the NFL's Concussion Committee seem to believe participation in football does not increase an athlete's risk of dementia-like symptoms.

The University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research (ISR) and The North Carolina Center for the Study of Retired Athletes (CSRA) both give supportive evidence to prove the NFL is wrong.

The evidence collected points to a connection between dementia-like symptoms in athletes who played professional football. However, the NFL continues to reject this research despite the evidence.

So, why is the NFL denying the research and statistics proving playing football increases an athlete's risk of dementia-like symptoms?

Some people who demand answers from the NFL are the athletes themselves. Many of these athletes retire due to injuries they have suffered. In Adding Insult to Injury, by David Steele, he interviews some of these players who now live their lives in pain and have been looking to the league for help.

Curt Marsh, former offensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders, said he does not "regret sacrificing his health for football," but would like to have received help from the NFL when it came to his surgeries. Marsh told Steele in an interview that he is "43 years old, but I physically feel 83.'"

The first two times Marsh applied for a degenerative-injury benefit, he was turned down, but he finally received financial help from the NFL.

In an article in the New York Daily News Gary Myers said, "Low pension payments are a problem, getting disability benefits has become hopeless, and the [retired athletes] believe the NFL and the NFL Players Association have forgotten about them."

Sadly, these former athletes have been ignored because fans and NFL officials do not know how it feels to be on the field during a game.

There have been times when athletes tackle their opponents and never get up, only to find they will never walk again. In the book, Steele mentions a survey conducted by Ball State University, that the boring hits are the most deadly.

"The most damage occurred during routine plays that fans, watching on TV or in the stands, often miss because they have no sense of the sheer force of the collisions on the field," Steele said. "That's been compared to a car crash at 25 mph, or to running the length of a driveway and slamming into the garage door; in both cases, repeatedly."

If the fans cannot even see the damage these players suffer, how can the NFL draw the conclusion that the participation in football does not cause dementia-like symptoms?

Only the athletes know the damage that is done to their body and dementia does not just develop overnight.

In Dementia Risk Seen in Players in N.F.L. Study, Alan Schwarz reported that research performed for the NFL by the ISR and CSRA, has proven participation in football increases the risk of dementia. Still, the NFL and their doctors deny the research collected. They claim "memory disorders affect many people who never played football or other sport. We are trying to understand it as it relates to our retired players."

In a 2008 survey performed by the ISR, researchers performed a phone survey on 1,063 retired players who have played at least three years in the NFL. Six percent of players, age 50 and above, reported they have received a dementia related diagnosis five times higher than the United States average of slightly more than 1 percent. Two percent of players, age 30 to 49, have received a dementia related diagnosis, 19 times higher than the United States average of one-tenth of a percent.

Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, a researcher for the CSRA, had the same results after performing his own survey-based research. Dr. Guskiewicz came to the conclusion that many athletes from the NFL have a connection to dementia-like symptoms.

Even after these surveys that were performed by two different organizations, the NFL still feels they need to perform their own experiments.

With so much evidence at hand to the NFL, why are they denying these statistics and not taking care of their former players?

Dr. Ira Casson, the co-chairman of the NFL's concussion committee told in an interview with Alan Schwarz, "What I take from [these] reports is there's a need for further studies [on concussions causing dementia]."

Recently there was a congressional hearing on concussions in football and its correlation to dementia. Instead of expressing ways to help former athletes and their families, Roger Goodell concentrated on ways to change the rules of football to prevent the injuries from happening.

Rule changes can help decrease the frequency of concussions and lower the risk of dementia, but how would that solve the problem of helping former athletes who are already suffering from this mental disease? In Goodell Defends N.F.L.'s Handling of Head Injuries, Lynn Zinser interviewed Dr. Eleanor Perfetto on her thoughts about the NFL's comments to perform more studies. Dr. Perfetto is the wife of former lineman Ralph Wenzel, who is currently living with dementia at an institution at the age of 66. Dr. Perfetto told Zinser the NFL is "in denial" and they are "disrespectful to the players and their suffering."

The NFL needs to put more concentration on their retired athletes, even if it means emptying their pockets. Since the NFL is a successful organization that is continuing to grow, why is money becoming such an issue?

Representative Maxine Waters, from California, wondered the same question and did not hesitate to ask Roger Goodell in his hearing.

"Players are always going to get injured. But, are you going to pay for it?" Waters asked Goodell. "I know that you dearly want to hold on to your profits. I think it's the responsibility of Congress to look at your antitrust exemption and take it away."

Goodell responded with the same answer.

"Our goal is to make our game as safe as possible. and treat our retired players with respect and care they deserve," he said.

Goodell also added that he is not the guy to go to with these sorts of questions.

"A medical expert can give a better answer than [I] could," he said. Which raises the question of if he wants anything to do with the medical aspect of the problem.

Although the NFL is worth nearly $8 billion, Goodell and the NFL have little interest in investing in a benefits policy or collective bargaining agreement, for its retired athletes.

Myers said the current players and coaches receive 60 percent of the revenue each year.

Where he has the other 40 percent of the revenue gone and why is setting up a benefits program for former athletes such a hard process when you there is a sufficient amount of money?

The NFL has been a growing organization for over 40 years. With an organization whose revenue has been increasing every year, the NFL should be able to set up a benefits program for its retired players.

If the money earned by the NFL is not going toward a benefits program, where is it going?

To show their support, the NFLPA has set up a Gridiron Greats program. It is a program where current athletes can donate money to the leagues retired players. Still, Goodell and the NFL have to take more responsibility in their own league and make sure their former athletes can receive help after they end their careers.

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