Ta-Nehisi Coates has a devastating summary of the NFL's attitude toward brain trauma in players. Here's an excerpt:
1997 - The American Academy of Neurology establishes guidelines for concussed athletes returning to play. The guidelines recommend holding athletes who suffer a Grade 3 concussion (loss of consciousness) be taken "withheld from play until asymptomatic for 1 week at rest and with exertion."
2000 - The NFL rejects these guidelines. ''We don't know whether being knocked out briefly is any more dangerous than having amnesia and not being knocked out,'' says neurologist Mark R. Lovell. ''We see people all the time that get knocked out briefly and have no symptoms,'' he added. ''Others get elbowed, go back to the bench and say, 'Where am I?' ''
Lovell is a consultant for NFL and the NHL.
2002 - Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster dies. Towards the end of his life Webster was living out a pick-up truck, using a Taser to ease back pain, and applying Super Glue to his teeth.
2003 - In a game against the New York Giants, Kurt Warner suffers a concussion. Confusion ensues over the medical chain of command. Warner's coach, Mike Martz, says that the team doctor cleared Warner to play. The doctor, Bernard T. Garfinkel, agrees. But asked why Warner was allowed to play even though he "had trouble deciphering plays," Garfinkel says, "That's a coaching decision, not a medical decision."
Warner leaves Giant stadium in an ambulance.
"I would say it's not the coach; it's ultimately the physician's decision," says Pellman. "But you can't have a hard and fast protocol, because the injury is all over the place."
The whole post is much longer.
It's probably a good idea to point out that the kind of brain trauma that TNC has been discussing is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE -- not just "concussion" or even much more serious, but acute, injuries. (Here's the CTE page at Wikipedia.) It's a degenerative disease that's the result of repeated, rapid accelerations and decelerations of the head. First noticed in boxers and prizefighters ("punch drunk" syndrome), since 2002 it has been found repeatedly in the autopsied brains of professional football players. (All this info is from the linked Wikipedia page.) Hockey, wrestling, and soccer (because of "heading" the ball) are also suspected to entail the kind of head trauma that increases the risk of CTE.
If the data continues to pile up as it has been, professional football and its fans may be forced to do a lot of soul-searching. Perhaps it will go the way of boxing in the public eye.
TNC has pointed out that the effects of this sobering knowledge may be seen first in the youth and pee-wee leagues, as parents reconsider whether they want their sons to set out upon a road full of repeated, rapid accelerations and decelerations of their heads. The youngest known victim of CTE is Nathan Stiles, who collapsed and died from brain bleeding while playing high school football, after a series of hits in previous games; he was 17.
I'm not a big fan of raising your kids wrapped in a protective bubble. But I'm also not a big fan of repeatedly dropping your kids on their heads.