NFL's concussion crisis and head injuries may be way worse than first thought

11:17 PM, Nov 2, 2012   |    comments
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TAMPA, Fla. - After 11 NFL seasons without a serious injury, Anthony Becht considers himself one of the lucky ones.

"Have I had a full-fledged concussion in my career? No," Becht said. "But I've gotten 'dinged.' "

The former Buccaneers tight end says research in recent years has opened his eyes to the brain damage years of contact sports can cause. And when asked about new research 10 News reported on about the risk to youth athletes, he said he has his own eight-year-old son plays flag football.

Yet Becht - like so many other NFL players - says he accepted the risk to enjoy a successful career.

"Football is football; there's going to be contact. When I signed up for this thing, I knew there was the potential for ... injury that could end my career."

But advocates for concussion research and doctors alike suggest football players aren't fully comprehending the severe brain damage - and consequences - they are putting themselves at-risk for.

"Present players are the most difficult to get to because they're in the midst of a spectacular career," said Lisa McHale, the widow of former Buccaneers lineman Tom McHale.

Tom died of a drug overdose four years ago at age 45 following years of struggles with depression. But researchers at Boston University and the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) helped explain his struggles when they diagnosed him postmortem with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE is a progressive degenerative disease found predominately in athletes who have suffered repeated head trauma. Symptoms include depression, confusion, memory loss, and trouble making decisions.

Lisa McHale has since started working with the SLI and BU's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, helping families of other athletes suffering similar problems. But says she has trouble getting through to many of the athletes - and the NFL.

Four years ago, when research on her husband's brain revolutionized the approach toward the concussion crisis, she remembers getting a cold shoulder from the NFL.

"(We said), 'We've looked at six of your players and all six of them have this disease that should not happen and does not happen absent trauma,' " McHale said. "It seems to me (the NFL's) action should have been, 'oh my gosh, you know what can we do to look further into this and find out how big of a problem this is?' And they didn't."

Tom McHale never suffered a concussion, suggesting cumulative trauma to the head is more dangerous than individual concussions.

"You don't necessarily even have to sustain a concussion to have post-concussion syndrome symptoms and/or develop - later in life - Chronic Traumatic Encephalothopy," said Boston University researcher Dr. Robert Cantu.

Even Becht admits, with over 10,000 NFL snaps, he has experienced a lot of head trauma.

"My helmet is hitting someone else's helmet on every single play," Becht said. "That's not natural, I mean, you're banging forces between each other on every single play."

The NFL has been plagued in recent years by headlines of suspected suicides from former players, including Junior Seau, John Grimsley, Andre Waters, and Tampa native OJ Murdock.  There are also now more than 3,000 former players suing the league for not disclosing what it knew about head injuries.

But the league has taken a more aggressive approach this fall toward combating concussions, committing $30 million to concussion research and further restricting dangerous hits:

  • In 2012, a rule was passed to end a play when a runner's helmet comes off.
  • In 2010, a rule was passed to tighten enforcement and fines of helmet-to-helmet hits.
  • In 2009, a rule was passed that said "it is an illegal hit on a defenseless receiver if the initial force of the contact by the defender's helmet, forearm, or shoulder is to the head or neck area of the receiver."

The league also has a new advertising campaign, but it doesn't specifically mention the word "concussion."

"We don't know all the long-term effects yet," Becht said, "but it's got to make you think as a player."

While attitudes toward brain injuries is changing, those closest to the research are concerned it's not changing fast enough to protect the next generation of athletes.

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Read his Sports Business Blog at Shadow of the Stadium.

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