On Thursday, 80-plus lawsuits filed by more than 2,000 ex-players against the National Football League were consolidated into one action in Philadelphia federal court. With that news, the unrelenting assault on football continued.
Yet much of the media ignores indications that football may be less dangerous than we often think.
A study published in April by the Mayo Clinic makes it eminently clear: high school football caused no more long-term risk to the brain than singing in the glee club did for those who played the game in the '40s and '50s.
True, a concussion at any age causes temporary impairment of brain function. Furthermore, an ongoing study at Purdue has demonstrated that high school football players who regularly use their head as a weapon – whether or not they have suffered a concussion – experience cognitive impairment that lingers months after the end of the season. However, those same players – so far – have eventually recovered. The Purdue research is about to enter its fourth year.
The Mayo Clinic study, on the other hand, took a much longer view. It compared high school football players from Rochester, Minn., who played between 1946 and 1956, with non-athletes from the same high schools. In so doing, the investigators were looking for cases of dementia, Parkinson's disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease).
They found all three in both groups, occurring at the same rates. In short, playing football did not increase the risk of these conditions, which have been linked with playing in the NFL.
“We were a little bit surprised,” said lead author Dr. Rodolfo Savica, a neurologist. “We thought (the football players) would be more likely to develop these problems.”
Keep in mind, between 1946 and 1956, spearing was legal, helmets were of poorer quality, and concern about concussion was non-existent. Consequently, players with milder injuries were likely to continue playing.
Still, Savica was quick to caution that his results would not necessarily translate well to the modern game.
“It is hard to generalize to the high school population now,” he warned. “The game is very different in terms of the speed of the game.”
In the '40s and '50s, the season was also shorter, players were smaller, and the poorer helmets may have discouraged their use as a weapon.
As for those who played more recently in Rochester, Savica has already started examining the data from the late '50s and early '60s. However, he believes many from that time will still be too young – whether they played football or not – to have any of the three conditions for which he is searching.
Locally, Bears, White Sox and Blackhawks concussion specialist Dr. Beth Pieroth, Psy.D., was encouraged by what she found in Savica's research.
“While one study will not allay all of the concerns of worried parents,” she said, “it's important that we have well-designed research that verifies recovery from concussions.”
Also the consulting neuropsychologist for Community Hospital's Concussion Clinic, Pieroth would prefer a calmer approach to the coverage of this topic.
“We need to bring some balance to the conversation about concussion," she said. “We know that young people recover from concussions and do not show long-term problems when these injuries are managed appropriately. It's been hard for parents to believe me when I tell them that because of all of the media reports surrounding professional sports.”
Savica hopes the results of his work won't make modern-day athletes and their parents any less vigilant regarding concussion. As for coaches?
“They should behave,” he said.
If the coaches do so, some future researcher, who tries to replicate Savica's work on today's players, will find similar results.
John Doherty is a certified athletic trainer and licensed physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.