Ignorance driving NFL concussion fears?

May, 16, 2012
5/16/12
12:28
PM ET
George Koonce's recent guest column opened eyes to issues NFL players face upon leaving the game.

The former Green Bay and Seattle linebacker used research and personal experience to illustrate costs associated with investing disproportionately in their football identities.

Koonce's column also warned against jumping to conclusions over what role concussions might have played in the suicides that claimed Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. Daniel Engber's piece for Slate.com, published a week ago, drives home the message and is worth a read for those interested in continuing the discussion. Among his points:
"Just a handful of cases so far support the notion that repeated head injuries (concussive or otherwise) can lead to drug abuse, aggression, and self-harm. No one knows the baseline rate of chronic traumatic encephalopathy among athletes, let alone the general population. No one knows whether the pathological signs of CTE -- microscopic spots in the brain, found after death -- relate to behavioral symptoms like dementia and depression. And no one can explain how repeated knocks to the head might produce CTE, or how CTE might produce suicidal thoughts. Yet in spite of our near-total ignorance, a moral panic has taken hold: Elaborate explanations are concocted when simple ones will do. Faced with the regrettable facts -- a troubled man dies a lonely death -- we resort to hocus-pocus theorizing about tau proteins and fibrillary tangles. It's a form of denial: By obsessing over hidden trauma, we ignore what's right in front of us. Many ex-NFL players have sad and difficult lives."

Improving player safety should remain a priority, of course. Erring on the side of safety beats taking undue risks. Concussions remain a serious issue, but how serious are they relative to other risk factors facing NFL players? That is the question. The more we learn from Koonce and others, the better. It is possible the concussion issue is peaking, just as the steroid issue did years before. Engber draws that comparison as well.

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