From NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s press conference on Feb. 1, 2008, the Friday before Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Arizona:
Me: As you may know, in a forthcoming book, a forensic pathologist who did brain autopsies on Mike Webster, Terry Long and Andre Waters suggests that there is a syndrome that some football players suffer from that is similar to the syndrome that some boxers suffer from in terms of brain damage from repeated head trauma. He urges that the league and the union pay for continued medical follow-up for all retired NFL players to determine just how serious of a problem this is. My question is: Do you acknowledge that this is an issue, and would you support that sort of comprehensive follow-up for all retired players?
Goodell: Two points: I think we’ve been very clear about concussions and the importance of dealing with concussions as a medical issue, making sure that we take a very conservative approach that would make sure that we are doing everything to benefit the players’ health and safety. I don’t think any of those claims are backed up by scientific or medical facts. That’s what we’re trying to deal with. We have a committee that has been dealing with concussions for twelve or thirteen years now, which has done ground-breaking research. Certainly, I think we will continue to do this and focus on this. In fact, they are doing a study on former players to make sure they understand, from a scientific and medical standpoint, what is the long-term effect of concussions. I don’t think any of us has an answer to that, and we would like to get that answer, but we’d like to get it on a factual basis, rather than making a lot of charges that can’t be supported medically.”
If he had it to do over again with the benefit of more than four years of hindsight, my guess is Goodell would change that answer quite substantially. The NFL committee on brain injuries to which he referred was subsequently so discredited as an apologist for the league that its co-chairmen, Dr. Ira Casson and Dr. David Viano, resigned in November 2009.
The book to which I referred in my 2008 question, Play Hard, Die Young: Football, Dementia, Depression and Death, by forensic neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, has only gained credibility as more former NFL players have acknowledged suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and/or taken their lives since its publication in 2008, among them Shane Dronett (2009), Dave Duerson (2011) and Junior Seau just last week.
Former Broncos linebacker Karl Mecklenburg is one of sixty plaintiffs in one of the numerous lawsuits against the NFL for its treatment of head injuries over the years. More than 1,200 former players are now named in over fifty separate cases. Former Broncos safety Dennis Smith is a plaintiff alongside Mecklenburg in the action filed in Pennsylvania. Former quarterback Jeff Hostetler is the lead plaintiff in that case.
“I have good days and bad days,” Mecklenburg said this week on the Dave Logan Show. “I have days I have a tough time remembering people’s names. I travel all the time as a motivational speaker and I’ve got to park on the same side of the airport, same level, same row, so I know exactly where my car is when I get back, because I have no idea otherwise. Stuff like that.
“When I go into the hotel room on the road I take out my cell phone and take a picture of the room number and then I know where it is. It’s one of those things you adjust to. And I can’t tell you how much of that is who I am and how much of that is football-related. But I think it’s a little unusual for someone fifty-one years old to be having those kind of issues.”
Like a lot of his fellow plaintiffs, Mecklenburg wonders whether the NFL knew of the potentially devastating effects of head injuries even as its in-house committee was insisting for more than a dozen years that the research was inconclusive.
“If you look historically at what has happened in the NFL and what change has happened, it’s when there’s legal pressure brought on the league,” Mecklenburg said.
“Individually, a guy like (Broncos owner) Pat Bowlen is a wonderful human being, a guy that I’d do anything for. But collectively, the league is in business to make money. They’re not going to do anything that kills the golden goose if they can possibly help it. It’s a contact game, it’s a dangerous game, but you can limit the amount of injuries, especially head injuries, if you legislate for that.
“Since things have come to light, or since they’ve decided that it’s OK for things to come to light, there’s all kinds of rules against going after the head and causing those kind of injuries. And when it happens, it’s taken seriously, where ten years ago I don’t know that the league didn’t already understand that there were long-term effects to head injuries, and the players were told over and over again that that’s not true.
“So, to me, to force the league to say, ‘You know what, the best interest of the players is also in our best interest,’ is really what I’m looking for, and what I’m hoping the other guys are looking for, too.”
As the death toll among former players by their own hands has mounted, there’s been more conversation within the medical community as to whether CTE is the result of major head trauma, what we think of as concussions, or might also be the cumulative effect of hundreds or thousands of minor traumatic incidents that go largely unnoticed, the sort of head-banging that goes on in football practices at every level every day.
“I don’t know,” Mecklenburg said. “That hasn’t been proven one way or another yet. What we do know is that there is a disease called CTE that mimics Alzheimer’s Disease. They’ve identified kind of a rogue protein, the tau protein, that they’ve found in autopsies of guys with this disease, and it’s connected to head blows. And they don’t know whether it’s the one big head blow or a whole bunch of little head blows. They don’t know.
“They realize some people are more susceptible to it than others. But a lot more information has to come in. And hopefully they’re going to be able to find ways to mitigate this thing before it’s an autopsy situation, before forty-three-year-old guys are killing themselves.”
When I mentioned some of the game’s well-known suicide victims, including former Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, former Steelers offensive lineman Terry Long and Duerson, the former Bears defensive back, Mecklenburg mentioned Dronett, the Broncos’ second-round draft pick in 1992 and Mecklenburg’s teammate for three years. Dronett, a defensive lineman from the University of Texas, went on to play six seasons for the Falcons after four with the Broncos. He shot himself to death in 2009, nine days after his thirty-eighth birthday.
“Great guy, a fun-loving guy,” Mecklenburg said. “That’s the thing. When you think about these guys and you have first-hand knowledge of them, you realize what wonderful human beings they were, and the last thing you would think that would happen, because every single one of them is outgoing, fun-loving, seemingly very well-balanced emotionally, guys. And then they get this disease and part of the disease is depression. That’s what, I think, separates it from Alzheimer’s. Depression is part of it and when that hits, in my mind, the guys have got to keep track of each other. I don’t think the NFL can do that for us. I don’t think the union can do that for us.
“I really think we’ve got to get some sort of a system going where people are in contact with each other daily and making sure everybody’s OK. I know players who played golf with Junior Seau a week before he killed himself and said he was in great spirits, having a blast messing around with the guys, and . . . and . . . boom. So it’s a scary thing. It’s this time bomb and we don’t know who’s got it, who doesn’t have it. There’s really no way to test for it at this point, and hopefully that’s going to change.”
Note: I’ll be one of the guests tonight (Wednesday, May 9) on Studio 12 (KBDI-Channel 12) from 8-9 p.m. The show, hosted by Steffan Tubbs of 850 KOA, will examine the issue of brain injuries in football.