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Inside Slant: Concussion book takeaways

10/2/2013

So I tweeted Wednesday morning about a completely benign and totally harmless story. You know, the one in which the vice chairman of the Detroit Lions referred to the Chicago Bears as "a bunch of thugs."

Naturally, I received dozens of outraged responses and was copied on a number of harsh exchanges between Lions and Bears fans. So it was with some irony that there was almost no reaction to another story I tweeted out: A new book -- co-written by two ESPN investigative journalists, one a Pulitzer Prize winner. "League of Denial" documents "a campaign to deny a growing body of scientific research that showed a link between playing football and brain damage," according to the ESPN news story.

The one reply came from @Real_Morp: "yes but in reality fans don't care. As long as football is played NFL will have 100% approval rating from fans."

I get it. A level of concussion fatigue has set in among football fans and much of the general public. Last month's $765 million settlement of all concussion litigation ensured that the issue will not bring down the game. As long as football is still being played, the reasoning goes, why does anyone care what happened years ago?

Without going into great detail, I do think there are some critical takeaways from this work and -- just as important -- a continuing discussion about the issue. Here are some big-picture thoughts to keep in mind, at least from my perspective:

  • Vigilance: As crazy as it sounds, big corporations in this country sometimes work harder to protect their own interests than that of their employees. The NFL might not be a big business on an economic scale relative to other industries, but the work of investigative journalists Marc Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru shows that it acted like one as concussion research deepened. From the book: "[T]he league used its economic, political and media power to attack pioneering research and try to replace it with its own." That claim is not opinion; it is backed up by verified facts. The NFL's actions, under previous leadership, should inform future dealings with it by players, fans and corporate sponsors.

  • Context: Many are now convinced the league is acting responsibly about concussions, given heightened standards and protocols along with weekly reports of players sidelined by symptoms rather than sent back into games. It's worth noting that fans and players of previous generations also accepted that head injuries were being treated properly. Research and reporting have since proved otherwise, a cautionary tale for fully accepting the sufficiency of any treatment at any point in time.

  • Awareness: Work such as "League of Denial," whether intentional or otherwise, work to raise awareness of the risks football players take at all levels. It's difficult to imagine this game changing enough to eliminate the potential for head injuries, and thus long-term health issues. Already this season, there have been multiple instances of players receiving delayed treatment for concussions. There is a lot of gray area. The most we can hope for is that players -- whether they are 12, 18 or 25 years old -- fully understand the risks and possibilities before signing up.

Again, I understand concussion story fatigue. But from a human perspective, there is no more important issue in this game. I'll leave you with the way the authors described it: "'[T]he essence of football -- the unavoidable head banging that occurs on every play, like a woodpecker jackhammering at a tree -- can unleash a cascading series of neurological events that in the end strangles your brain, leaving you unrecognizable."

I think that's worth remembering.