On Super Bowl Sunday, a Concussion Conversation Continues

February 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics, Sports

Today is Super Bowl Sunday, and even if your hometown’s team is one of the competitors, none has completely escaped chatter about the brain-injury controversy—from CNN’s report on the long-lasting damage suffered by former players, after years of impacts like those at left, to stories from Business Week and others on how states are already changing practice rules for school sports.

If you watch the game, you’ll see at least one of those expensive PSAs on the subject. And if you’re a New York Times reader, you might have seen the following quote from a 1928 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association: “There is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages. … The condition can no longer be ignored by the medical profession or the public.”

The report was cited by science writer Deborah Blum, who took particular aim at the NFL’s “injury expert,” Dr. Ira Casson. Dr. Casson has repeatedly said that there is “not enough evidence” that the injuries were lasting; Blum advises he learn how to use Google, then gives more  details of how the same gnarled lesions that we’re seeing now were found in autopsies 80 years ago.

Blum, a 56-year old Pulitzer-winning journalist, is the latest member of our Power Women for Safe Football club, the cavalcade of powerful women, many of them grandmothers, who helped jump-start the concussion debate.

This week, Rep. Linda Sanchez, one of the members that  WVFC has previously profiled, was featured on Dan Rather Reports in the segment “Taking a Hit.” Sanchez told Rather that Casson and the NFL seemed “very reminiscent of the tobacco industry saying that smoking didn’t cause, um–any damage to your health because they had their own studies. And their own studies, surprisingly, concluded that–you know, concussions, you know, really weren’t a big deal. I’m paraphrasing here. But, for many years, the attitude was to kind of muddy the water, so to speak, and not come out with a strong statement about concussion.”

And just today, NPR featured Miami neurologist Dr. Gillian Hotz, 40, who described how players get away with hiding multiple concussions: “What happens is, they build up this sensitivity that it’s OK to have these headaches all the time, that it’s OK to be a little dizzy, it’s OK that their vision’s blacked out. It goes away and they just keep playing, and the next time, it happens faster and the headaches last a little longer.” (Click here to watch Dr. Hotz on ESPN, showing as well as telling.)

We wonder if Gay Culverhouse, the former owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who really blew the whistle on the NFL’s deceptions last fall, is pleased that things are starting to move — or if she, like many of us, is equally impatient that it took this long to start to make football safer.

Women’s Voices: A Real Game Changer for the NFL

January 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Newsmakers

The above public service announcement aired during the Jets-Bengals playoff game on Saturday, possibly unnoticed by football fans anxious to continue cheering their teams. But some fans saw, in this simple announcement, the culmination of a dramatic story that has been building on the sidelines.

Throughout this football season, growing concerns about traumatic brain injury have shaken the complacency of football fans and players, forcing them to rethink the game they love. As reported in The New York Times, each tackle, each collision of players even in practice, may cause a traumatic brain injury that could have dire consequences — cognitive damage, even dementia. The danger comes from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and has been exacerbated by team doctors and coaches who have sometimes urged players right back on the field.

After a hearing on the issue before Congress, California Rep. Linda Sanchez told The New York Times: “Young people believe they’re invincible already. To have somebody involved with the N.F.L. not acknowledge common-sense information, young people will think nothing will happen to them. That’s such a disservice to young athletes who are known to be at greater risk.”

In November, our Diane Vacca covered the congressional hearing, including an intensive profile and exclusive footage of Gay Culverhouse’s testimony. Culverhouse, daughter of a former owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, grew up in the world of football and has seen the costs it exacts from its players:

“Shocked” by the deteriorating health of her former players and their inability to receive disability compensation, Culverhouse is finishing a book, Violence: The Underbelly of the NFL, about these experiences. The retired players “walk through our lives looking like old men crippled by arthritis and, in some cases, dementia. My men have headaches that never stop. They cannot remember where they are going or what they want to say without writing it down. Some are on government welfare. Some are addicted to pain medications. Some are dead.” In the case of a head injury, the player “is told to ‘shake it off,’” she said.

WVFC has continued to monitor news coverage about CTE and the NFL on our Facebook page. At this point, it is difficult to know how the game of football will change. Redesigned helmets? Different tackling rules? No helmets at all?

One thing is clear: Sanchez, Culverhouse and other women have been at the forefront with their deep knowledge and articulate, concerned voices. And change has already begun.

Gay Culverhouse, a Grandmother Who Speaks Truth to NFL Power

November 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Sports

vaccaInstantly noticeable among the dark suits at the House Judiciary Committee hearing two weeks ago, Gay Culverhouse stood out in her purple dress, but even more for what she said. She hammered the National Football League and its doctors relentlessly, charging that they treat individual football players as “a disposable commodity.”

I confess, I don’t follow football. I don’t even like it. But watching a woman defying a roomful of men, challenging the established wisdom and fighting for a cause she believes in, is a blood sport I can enjoy.

Tgayculverhousehe grandmother of six, who has several homes and raises thoroughbred horses, has clearly benefitted from her connection to the N.F.L. Culverhouse is the daughter of the former owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was president of the team in the early ’90s. But now that she’s learned how much and how many of her former players are suffering from the long-term effects of their football injuries, she is pressuring the N.F.L to take better care of its players. In the room, right next to Culverhouse, were the head of the N.F.L. and numerous team doctors, only some of whom stuck to the party line.

Football, Culverhouse declared, “is a cutthroat business.” The goals scored on the playing field enable the real goal, she added, which “is for the franchise to make money.”

The congressional hearing was convened in response to a series of articles in The New York Times that focused attention on the unusually high incidence of Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive disorders among retired football players, attributable to what experts call chronic traumatic encelopathy (CTE). Despite the mounting evidence in recent studies, the N.F.L. has consistently denied any link between cognitive impairment and playing football (which often means suffering repeated concussions, and even without concussions involves frequent jolts to the system).



Brain slices tested for CTE. In lower middle, see the whole brain section from Houston Oilers linebacker John Grimsley, showing damage in the amygdala and adjacent temporal cortex (Boston University)

Brain slices tested for CTE. In lower middle, see the whole brain section from Houston Oilers linebacker John Grimsley, showing damage in the amygdala and adjacent temporal cortex (Boston University)



Culverhouse aimed her fire at the role of the team doctor and “the medical community in facilitating these concussions.” She looked right past the N.F.L. doctors and informed the committee that the team doctors who attend to players during the game have a financial interest in returning the injured player to the playing field as soon as possible — in “the following game, if not the same game.” To that end, the doctor shoots the injured joint with cortisone to numb the pain, often on the field while the team forms a wall to keep the crowd from seeing the injured player vomit, she said.

Culverhouse has a doctorate from Columbia’s Teachers College in special education. She raises Paso Fino horses, known for their special gait. In the past year, she has been tracking down her former players and doing everything in her power to help them. She is advising them about how to get help for their disabilities and even filling out insurance forms for those who are unable to do it for themselves.

“Shocked” by the deteriorating health of her former players and their inability to receive disability compensation, Culverhouse is finishing a book, Violence: The Underbelly of the NFL, about these experiences. The retired players “walk through our lives looking like old men crippled by arthritis and, in some cases, dementia. My men have headaches that never stop. They cannot remember where they are going or what they want to say without writing it down. Some are on government welfare. Some are addicted to pain medications. Some are dead.” In the case of a head injury, the player “is told to ‘shake it off,’” she said.

“This is inexcusable.” Her testimony riveted the committee.

“The doctor is not their medical advocate. He’s not even conflicted. He knows who pays his salary,” she testified. If the doctors “are foolish enough to care about the players they treat, they are fired.” She described the “chaos in the locker room as players are mended and injected to get back on the field” during halftime, when “a good proportion of the players are getting intravenous therapy,” using arm cuffs “to speed the IV process … against medical best practices.”

Culverhouse added that the players don’t object— it’s not in their financial interest, any more than it is in management’s. Culverhouse explained that their contracts are “backend-loaded with performance bonuses. They need those extra yards and those interceptions in order to make their salaries.” They know that if they report a concussion, another player is sitting on the bench waiting to take their place. And if they consult an independent doctor, they become pariahs, no longer considered “team players,” she said.

At this critical stage of her life, Culverhouse is looking forward as well as back. She has six grandchildren, and one of her grandsons is a football player. “I have seen his future in the bodies and eyes of my former players. I know what is happening in the locker room. Please change football,” she implored the committee and the N.F.L., “before my grandson is damaged.”

Knowledge is power. I, too, have a grandson who plays football. For the sake of all our sons, let’s use this new knowledge to change not just the way the game is played, but the culture that acquiesces in using, abusing and finally discarding human beings when they are no longer profitable.