The NFL is back!

As we observe another Labor Day, our annual transition from the heat of summer to the cool breezes of autumn, it is refreshing to know that the National Football League is planning to start its 2020 season in just a few days.  As you are probably aware, team officials throughout the league have factored COVID-19 into their planning this year and have made adjustments accordingly.  For example, my hometown team, the Miami Dolphins, will be limiting their home attendance to just 13,000 fans per game (which is 20% capacity of their home field, Hard Rock Stadium).  

What caught my interest in the run-up to the new football season was a recent article in The Washington Post describing a former player’s concern about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the concussion-related disease that has profoundly affected many players.   

In the past few years, the NFL has acknowledged the negative impact of traumatic head injury associated with football-related concussions and reached a financial settlement with players.  This settlement, according to the Post, “already has awarded nearly $790 million to retirees with cognitive impairment or conditions such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.”  

The Post reported last week that neurologists are working on experimental scans that would identify the presence of CTE while players are still alive.  It tells the story of Sean Morey who was Pro Bowl player for the Arizona Cardinals: “Morey estimates that he suffered more than 20 concussions over his career, most of them undiagnosed, and countless other blows to the head.  Following the 2009 season, he began having blind spots in his vision and excruciating headaches that would leave him immobilized for hours at a time.”

The tests are still in development and more work must be done, but the goal is a worthy one.  The ability to have a diagnostic test that would clearly show whether or not a player has CTE (or the extent to which they have it) would be a major step forward for the many who wonder if their current mental impairment is a result of their playing days.  Eventually, it could lead to the development of a treatment that could help affected players live happily past their playing days.

Not that long ago, the NFL was in denial about these issues (hence the book, League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru), creating a major ethical (and legal) problem.  I hope as research continues that the league will continue to help those who have helped make football so successful.

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