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Death of Pro Football Player Adds Fuel to Head Trauma Debate

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Miami, FL: The Superbowl may be over, but pro football has been thrust back into the spotlight after the death last week of one of its much-loved heroes. Dave Duerson was found dead in Florida February 17 after having suffered a gunshot wound to the chest. He was 50.

Death of Pro Football Player Adds Fuel to Head Trauma DebateDuerson had been seen as recently as a year ago commenting on the propensity of pro football players to suffer severe injuries in the pursuit of their sport. Rather than a "contact" sport, Duerson likened it to a "collision" sport. The big, burly former Chicago player who helped the Bears to their Superbowl win in 1985 pulled no punches.

Last year, he attended the 25th anniversary of the Bears' Superbowl win and appeared fine. Attendees described him as jovial.

Now, following his tragic death, health advocates will be interested in knowing if Duerson suffered from brain injury from years playing in a league that appeared to turn a blind eye to head trauma.

Brain injury (concussion and other traumas) and the NFL have been often used in the same sentence in recent months as lawsuits filed by former players and the families of those who have died begin to take the NFL through the courts over the issue. The allegation is that either the NFL knew about the potential for head trauma and turned a blind eye to it or did not know but should have.

Players participate in the game of their own free will, more often than not with handsome contracts.

Any football player is aware there is risk of injury in such an aggressive game. Those injuries would by process of association include injuries to the head, given the fact that football players (save for the quarterback, running back and place kicker) lead with their head during tackles.

The question that will be winding its way through the courts: did players know that such activity could give them more serious fallout beyond a headache for a couple of days? And had they known, would they have behaved differently? Would they have taken the risk?

Had the NFL recognized the risk and responded in kind by altering the game, might players who are now having problems been spared?

Can the NFL be held as negligent?

As tragic as Duerson's death is, the fact that his fatal wound was to the chest preserves his brain as intact—which can be studied and analyzed to determine if he was suffering from conditions that have been found to plague pro football players over the past few years, according to CNN yesterday.

Those players include former linebacker Fred McNeil, who CNN describes has having lost virtually all his memory after playing pro ball back in the 1980s. George Visger has been relegated to writing down everything he does in a day, as his short-term memory only lasts a few minutes at a time.

Other players have died young of natural causes, through accident or have committed suicide, so great is their depression and anxiety.

Of those who have died, their brains have yielded valuable information that has revealed much. In all likelihood Duerson's brain will be examined. Doctors will be looking for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The latter has been shown to cause bizarre behavior and severe depression.

Traces of the disease have been found in the brains of several late NFL football players, including John Grimsley, Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long, Tom McHale and Chris Henry.

CTE is believed to be caused by large accumulations of tau proteins in the brain that kill cells in the regions responsible for mood, emotion and executive functioning. Tau proteins are also found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

And while CTE disease has been found, the medical community is quick to point out that playing pro ball and even enduring successive concussions is no guarantee that CTE will result.

That said, it remains a concern nonetheless with an increasing number of pro football players—even those at the high school and college level—becoming aware.

"I hear frequently from former players," Dr. Robert Stern, a co-director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, told CNN. "It's a combination of joking and serious discussions of them being aware of their memory slipping or behavior changes that they're now becoming more and more concerned about because of awareness of CTE."

While everyone is watching to see what happens with proposed lawsuits, there may be a short-term result that pits player health against profits. CNN reports that the NFL's labor deal expires March 3, with players and team owners in a hot battle over the split of billions of dollars in revenue, together with a request by team owners to expand the season by two games to 18.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, neuropathologist at the Brain Injury Research Institute who was first to describe CTE in an American football player, vociferously opposes extending the season.

"This is an epidemic. I have not met a retired NFL player who is not having problems."

READER COMMENTS

Posted by
Save the Brains
on
Story from GQ, September 2009, about this subject. Amazing, fascinating, and scary... not only the lives ruined but what the league apparently does to dispute these findings:

gq.com/sports/profiles/200909/nfl-players-brain-dementia-study-memory-concussions

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