The NFL's Big Brain Injury Problem That We Don't Give A Damn About


$6 billion in revenues and a product that's consistently the most watched show on television led me to believe the NFL was untouchable. Then came the study released to the public Friday September 12th by actuaries as a result of the proposed concussion settlement.


The actuaries expect 14% of all former players to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, about that many to develop other forms of dementia over the next 65 years and another 50 or so to develop ALS or Parkinson’s. That means that of the approximately 19,000 people that have played in the NFL, about 6,000 will develop a neurocognitive disorder. More jarring is the fact that these players are at two times the risk of the average person to develop Alzheimer’s, ALS, and dementia between the ages of 20-60.

After weeks of re-hashing the actions of a small handful of players, I kept waiting on the deluge of outrage over the fact that this game is irreparably damaging the brains of its employees. I never saw it lead any sports shows; never saw a business threaten to revoke its sponsorship, no national outcry for the NFL to “lead” on the subject of brain trauma (despite the actual connection to the product they produce).

This isn’t to downplay the justified anger over domestic violence in this country, or besmirch those attempting to have honest conversations about child rearing. But the high profile criminal acts of a few players have overshadowed a near criminal act each NFL player can fall victim to.

I’m not the only one that noticed this report. The settlement discussion that spawned the study is worth over $700 million for goodness sakes. But the release of this report and subsequent muted national response reminded me of this Deadspin article about the curious ESPN coverage of the chain of custody regarding the Ray Rice tape.

It seems an odd juxtaposition of interests to detest the off-the-field legal issues of a player but be unflinchingly indifferent at some of the awful consequences they face in their personal lives that will resonate with them for much longer then their NFL careers’ duration.

Alzheimer’s is a soulless and unrelenting disease. It takes the very essence of a person and renders it sickeningly silent. The happiness and highlights of the person’s past are stolen from them as the future is summarily erased to reveal only a bleak, blank slate. It’s a disease with a gun and mask that painfully steals the memories of the inflicted, and taints those of its victims’ friends and family. It kills a human from the inside out, destroying everything recognizable as a person while leaving their outward appearance untouched. It quite literally leaves a person a shell of their former selves. Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon openly talks about large gaps in his memory, and contemplation of suicide. Hall-of-fame running back Tony Dorsett has mentioned the fact that his kids are afraid of him, as he has begun to show signs of CTE; the same degenerative condition that led to safety Dave Duerson’s suicide. And the same degenerative condition that appeared in the brain of Jovan Belcher, the Kansas City Chief who murdered the mother of his child before killing himself.


How much money is worth breaking apart a family? Keep in mind, the vast majority of NFL players aren’t the private jet-owning, heavily endorsed superstars on TV. They are the ones with the short careers (average approximately 3.5 years) and unguaranteed contracts. And moreover, these players weren’t aware of the consequences. The information emerged as a result of the concussion settlement talks, the same settlement that resulted from the civil action between former players and the NFL; the one where the League itself disclaimed knowledge of the results of head trauma until relatively recently.

So what is there to do moving forward?

The NFL recently announced that concussions are down league-wide, presumably as a result of the rules changes implemented. Perhaps this will serve as the first step towards a safer product on the field. Of course, in light of recent NFL actions, it may be difficult to take the findings of an internal investigation at face value.


This should be a scary story. This should frighten people. The results surely frighten me. Have I cheered on a player as he endangered his mental health? Has a player irreparably harmed his future (and that of his family’s) as I delighted at the big hit? I’ve already made the decision that any child I may have won’t play the sport, but what of the cognitive dissonance of taking him to a football game? Now that the information is slowly coming out about football and head injuries, we all become culpable for our actions of support. There are no easy answers about our relationship to this violent and exhilarating game. But with a number attached to the lives in jeopardy after every kickoff, it’s feeling more and more uncomfortable to enjoy America’s most popular game.

Although W. Brenden Whitted acquired a JD and Sports Certificate from Tulane University, he will always self-identity as a Howard Bison. You can hear him rant at or read his football analysis at



It seems opportunistic and somewhat disingenuous to discuss traumatic brain injury in the NFL and not discuss the danger of participating in sports overall. What about soccer or field hockey or la cross? Athletes in those sports are as likely to suffer traumatic brain injury as NFL players.

What about auto racing, boxing, MMA, surfing, skateboarding, basketball, gymnastics, diving? Participants in all of these sports routinely suffer serious and many times chronic injuries.

The question isn't really just about the NFL. That's just the easiest target at the moment. When boxing was more popular these same discussions were going on about that sport. The real question is how much is a society willing to let people risk to participate in dangerous sports or sports that can potentially be dangerous.

Discussing just the NFL is kicking the can down the road. The discussion, if it is to be had, should be a more broad discussion about the ethics of sport in general. And, not just about possible injury but about the exploitation of athletes in general. Which of course will open not one but many cans of worms.