I am one of the tens of millions of fans of college and professional football. I played football when I was in junior high. (I was a right guard: Not the deodorant, the position!). I watch football religiously on Thursday nights, all-day & evening on Saturdays, Sunday afternoons and evenings, and Monday nights to boot. I follow the New England Patriots (my hometown professional franchise), the Holy Cross Crusaders (my undergraduate alma mater) and the University of Arkansas Razorbacks (the team of my current employer).
But I am also a Biomedical librarian with over 35 years of experience, with the duty and competence to identify and supply well-vetted scientific and clinical studies to library patrons, who will go on to use the information in their own professional practice or as part of their ongoing program of study.
So it is entirely fair to say that I have conflicted feelings, when comparing the claims of the NFL that repeated concussions (also known as Mild Brain Traumatic Injuries) have not been shown necessarily to lead prematurely to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy ----- persistent cognitive declines, other neuropsychological effects, and severe emotional turmoil ----- that emerges later on in the lives of its players, usually after their retirement, sometimes as early as their mid-thirties.
I certainly want this denial to be the case, but wanting it to be the case, is not the same as having a preponderance of evidence on one side or the other.
Dr. Ira Casson and the NFL team of experts
To its great credit, the NFL has started its own “in-house” studies, and these have been generally headed up by Dr. Ira Casson, a board-certified neurologist who has made a career of studying athletes and brain injuries, particularly concussions. He has frequently worked with other physicians, most commonly Drs. D.C. Viano, and E.J. Pellman, as part of a group called ProHEALTH Care Associates, LLP.
Dr. Casson is, in fact, arguably the most published physician in this area. I have identified at least 17 studies, often also involving Viano and Pellman, involving concussion and NFL football players (as well as a few studies of boxers whose record of permanent brain trauma is almost universal). These studies all appeared in highly reputable journals such as the American Medical Association’s Archives of Neurology, Elsevier’s Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America and its Neurological Clinics, and perhaps most importantly in the journal, Neurosurgery, a Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins title that is the official voice of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.
Many of his studies are uncontroversial and some results and measures taken by the NFL in response to them, such as the establishment of its official Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, are undisputed as positive measures in terms of advancing knowledge of concussions and other brain trauma in modern professional football:
· There is now extremely little chance for very severe one-shot head injuries among NFL players. This has already been substantially minimized by intense cooperation between equipment suppliers (particularly of helmets), NFL-retained physicians and trainers, and significant support from science and engineering studies contracted for this purpose.
· There continues to be a surprising number of ongoing studies that attempt to identify the various dynamic forces in terms of unnatural head and neck deflection and extension with regard to angle of collision and degree of force behind the collisions. What the auto industry did with respect to auto crashes, seat belts, and air bags, and crash test dummies, is effectively being duplicated in earnest by groups within and without the NFL’s auspices.
· There is a continuous training program for team physicians and allied sports professionals to examine and quickly screen for on-field concussions. If the players report them, or show overt symptomatology, they will be closely examined and possibly sent off field for treatment. The NFL has even developed some screening tools to help them overcome the natural reluctance of players who fear losing their starting position, contract renegotiation, or being traded, because they have had one or more concussions and do not want to be considered “whiners who won’t play through the pain.”
· Deliberate helmet-to-helmet collisions in the course of a game now involve, not only a serious 15-yard penalty during the game, but also a stiff fine for the offending player afterwards from the NFL commissioner.
· The NFL has now mandated baseline neurocognitive testing of all incoming NFL players, so as to be able to check not only if there are existing deficits in these players, but more importantly, perhaps, to provide for comparison points between the beginning of a career vs. its immediate end and even the situation several years past retirement. An inventory of facts regarding prior psychiatric issues, chemical dependency, learning disabilities, and some factors of emotional stability is also involved.
· A program of outreach to retired NFL players who are having neurocognitive declines, that includes screening, and follow up for those willing and able to complete any paperwork and to make their own arrangements to come to their facilities.
The Criticisms & the Sad, Adverse Case Histories
Dr. Casson and associates are not without critics. Those complaints center around:
· A lack of independence of the studies from those who paid for the studies. In other words: Is it any surprise that the NFL pays for studies that essentially suggest that the NFL’s current arrangements for handling concussions (i.e. Mild Brain Traumatic Injuries) are safe and effective in preventing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?
· Too few subjects within the studies that have been conducted to render scientifically valid results. This is a criticism that the NFL suggests is technical rather than indicative of a lack of good faith on their part. Critics suggest that larger numbers are much more likely to reveal the truth, whatever the intention or motivation of the sponsoring organization.
· The claims by Casson and others that professional football players who have had a concussion in the course of a game, can often be returned to play very quickly, often within the same game. It is exactly this accumulation of Mild Brain Traumatic Injuries that critics suggests leads to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. They say that lack of immediate serious cognitive defects does not preclude long term cumulative damage down the road.
The scientific and clinical ammunition of the opponents is partly statistical and anecdotal of itself. It basically consists of :
· Bringing to the attention of the media, the U.S. congress, and the public, a growing number of retired NFL players who had experienced multiple concussions and have since undergone drastic declines in their mental faculties and ability to cope with life, far beyond what would be expected for their ages. Their clinical pictures makes them look like they are Alzheimer’s patients in the 70’s as opposed to men in their 40s or 50s.
· An accumulating body of postmortem brain studies from former NFL players that show that even small concussions, if too many and too often over a career, do result in visible brain damage that cannot be otherwise explained away.
· Federal support in terms of competitive NIH grants for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, a collaboration of the not-for-profit (but clearly biased towards the cumulative-effects-leading –to-the-Chronic-Traumatic-Encephalopathy viewpoint) Sports Legacy Institute and the Boston University School of Medicine. While paper of Dr. Anne McKee and her own team of experts, cited below, is clearly outnumbered by the studies of Casson, Viano and Pellman, it is no less prestigious in terms of its venue, the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology.
Congress Throws the Red Flag
In professional football, the coach of a team who wishes a reexamination of a call adverse to that team that has been made by the referees on the field, has the limited right to throw a red flag on the field. This causes the play to be reviewed using additional replays based on multiple camera angles, which supply different perspectives, and which have the potential for overturning that ruling. On Thursday, October 26, 2009, members of congress, during special hearings, clearly threw their flag, and were especially not pleased with the absence of the head referee, Dr. Ira Casson, who was presumably going to be asked to review the call on the field. While other physicians and league officials were there, and gave testimony and answers as best they could, it seemed that no conclusive result could be reached in his absence.
In the interest of football and football players, both current and retired from the NFL players, plus the players in college, high school, and even journal high schools who learn how to play, by watching the pros, it might well be that it really is time for someone else other than the NFL’s own experts “to review the tapes” either to confirm or overturn the current ruling on the field concerning whether or not current leagues practices relating to concussions really do avoid or minimize the chances of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and whether or not the league owes even more to its brain-damaged veterans.
Tony Stankus, FSLA firstname.lastname@example.org Life Sciences Librarian, Science Coordinator & Professor
University of Arkansas Libraries MULN 223E
365 North McIlroy Avenue
Fayetteville AR 72701-4002
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