WASHINGTON — The NFL wants all 50 states and the District of Columbia to pass legislation that could help cut down on concussions suffered by young football players.
A quicker route would be through federal legislation, and the NFL backs a bill pending in Congress. But the GOP-led House is unlikely to support that kind of federal role in local matters, so the league sees a bigger opening at the state level.
The suicide of a former NFL player just last week highlighted the urgency of this issue.
Former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, and The New York Times reported that he asked that his brain be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease caused by repeated blows to the head that is tied to depression, dementia and suicide.
The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine, which will study Duerson’s brain for signs of the disease, says that more than 300 athletes, including 100 current and former NFL players, are on its brain donation registry.
The effort is part of a shift by the NFL, which for years has been on the defensive from Congress and the media about how it handled head injuries. As recently as 2009, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was grilled by lawmakers when he would not acknowledge a connection between head injuries on the football field and later brain diseases.
Goodell told lawmakers that he was “changing the culture” of football when it came to player safety, and last season, the NFL started slapping players with five-figure fines for illegal hits in an attempt to cut down on serious head injuries. Goodell says he has committed “substantial resources” to getting the youth concussion laws passed across the country, although the league said it didn’t have an estimate on what the effort will cost.
The league says it has an obligation to use its clout to help cut down on concussions among America’s youth. But it also wants to keep a large pool of potential players healthy.
“We’re fortunate that we have more than 3.4 million young athletes playing football, and we want to continue to keep our player source strong and keep it large,” said Joe Browne, a senior adviser to Goodell.
There are other motivations as well, said Gabe Feldman, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University Law School.
“There’s no question that some of this is a PR play, that the NFL, like any league, is always looking to protect the image of the game,” he said. “But it’s also a lot more than that. They’re also protecting their product” by helping to minimize concussions in their future players.
About 135,000 children between the ages of 5 and 18 are treated in emergency rooms each year for sports- or recreation-related concussions and other head injuries.
The legislation the league favors is modeled on Washington state’s “Zackery Lystedt Law,” named for a middle school football player who suffered brain damage in 2006 after he had a concussion and returned to the game.
That law requires coaches to remove any player who shows signs of a concussion, and bars the player from competing again until cleared by a licensed health care professional trained in concussion evaluation and management. So far, nine states including Washington have passed such laws, according to the NFL.
When the NFL testified at a recent youth concussion legislation hearing in Washington D.C., it was not at the U.S. Capitol, but down the street at the city council chamber where NFL lobbyist Kenneth Edmonds urged council members to adopt rigorous safety measures like the NFL has.
But Feldman said that can be a challenge for most youth programs and high schools because of the high cost of such treatment.
Attempts to wring extreme violence out of football are as old as the sport itself.
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt joined the crusade, waging a campaign to eradicate brutality from the game. Eighteen players were killed that season.
“I believe in outdoor games, and I do not mind in the least that they are rough games, or that those who take part in them are occasionally injured,” Roosevelt said in a speech to Harvard that year.
But “brutality playing a game should awaken the heartiest and most plainly shown contempt for the player guilty of it.”
That fall, Roosevelt summoned officials from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House, urging them to clean up the sport. The president had a vested interest; his son was a freshman member of the Harvard football team who had recently come out of a game with a slit eyebrow and “cauliflower ear,” in the words of one newspaper account.
Roosevelt’s involvement helped lead to the formation of the International Athletic Association of the United States, later renamed the NCAA, which still governs college sports today.
The forward pass, which had been banned until then, was legalized, helping to open up the sport, while a dangerous play called the “flying wedge” was banned.
As football has faced a new crisis with head injuries in recent years, the federal government again prodded the sport to change, but this time the pressure came from Congress. House Judiciary Committee members in 2009 vainly tried to get Commissioner Goodell to acknowledge a connection between football head injuries and later brain diseases.
Browne said that those hearings were “part of the overall education of everyone involved in sports, not just in football, of the need to treat these injuries more seriously … We’re being much more aggressive in addressing the safety issue than perhaps any time in the 90-year history of our league.”
One of Goodell’s chief critics at that hearing, Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., called the NFL’s concussion campaign laudable.
“While it heartens me to see that the NFL’s finally embraced the growing body of scientific evidence that points to major problems for people who suffer multiple concussions,” she said, “it’s been a long time coming.”