Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman was at a forum in Los Angeles recently, discussing the city's chances of acquiring an NFL franchise, when the conversation turned to concussions. Aikman, who suffered from several concussions during his Hall of Fame career, sounded an ominous note about their potential effect.
League officials and owners are "very concerned about concussions," he said, adding, "The long-term viability, to me anyway, is somewhat in question as far as what this game is going to look like 20 years from now."
Aikman wouldn't prevent his son, if he had one, from playing, "but I don't know if I would be encouraging him to play. Whereas with the other sports, you want your kids to be active and doing those types of things."
Concussions have been a major issue in the NFL since at least December 2009, when the league conceded publicly for the first time that occurrences can have lasting consequences. Former players suffering from possible brain injuries have gained increased attention, and several lawsuits have been filed, including a class-action suit in December. A website has been established for retired players who have questions.
On Thursday the family of Dave Duerson filed the latest lawsuit. Duerson, a former Chicago Bears star who committed suicide last February at the age of 50, suspected that head trauma during his career had caused his mental state to deteriorate. He shot himself in the heart and left his brain to research, which proved him right.
The lawsuit identifies six other former players who reportedly suffered brain damage from playing football and later committed suicide. "If the NFL would have taken the necessary steps to oversee and protect Dave Duerson by warning him of the dangers of head traumas … then [he] would not have suffered dangerous repetitive head trauma, would have recovered more rapidly and would not have sustained permanent damage to his brain which contributed to cause his death," according to the suit.
NFL players bear some responsibility for their own health. The league embraces a tough-guy mentality that works against self-preservation. Many players co-sign with Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, who earlier this year told HBO that he would hide symptoms from team doctors. "If I have a concussion these days, I'm going to say something happened to my toe or knee just to get my bearings for a few plays," Urlacher said. "I'm not going to sit in there and say, 'I got a concussion; I can't go in there the rest of the game.' "
That's a huge part of the problem. But the league should be liable to the extent that it has withheld information about concussions over the years or encouraged players to compete after sustaining concussions.
Several positive steps have been taken over the past couple of seasons, including the presence of independent athletic trainers at every game and the establishment of strict sideline tests before players can return to a game. New rules on unacceptable forms of hitting and tackling should help, too, as players grow more accustomed to the changes.
Football is a dangerous sport and will remain so, much like auto racing, downhill skiing and boxing. But officials and participants must mitigate the threats as much as possible through information, equipment and regulations. It appears that the NFL was less than forthright in that regard until very recently. The league will probably have to pay for that inaction, as well it should.