03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Pigskin Arts and Dementia

My mother came onto the field after the tackle. She looked very
concerned. I quietly asked the lineman standing next to me, "Who is
that lady?" It took about five minutes for my neurons to re-align and
my memory to return. I had just received my first concussion in
football. It was at the Pop Warner level. A week later I was playing

As a former high school and college coach, I have seen many
players come out of games having "had their bell rung" - which usually
means seeing stars and being disoriented -- only to return to the
fray a few plays later. In a game whose practitioners literally model
themselves in terms of gladiators and warriors, the linebacker who
gets dinged and shows reluctance to go back in is likely to raise some

And yet what is really raising eyebrows these days is the
much publicized NFL study from the University of Michigan's Institute
for Social Research, indicating that former NFL players ages 30
through 49 have been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or
other memory-related disease at a rate 19 times that of the national
average. Though the results are being questioned by doctors from the
NFL, people in the neurological community are not surprised that
multiple concussions leave a long lasting negative signature.

It is rare instance when boxing has safety suggestions for another
sport about head injuries, but that moment has arrived. In amateur
boxing, when a bout is stopped because of head blows, immediate
restrictions on contact are established by the attending physician. As
Mike Martino, acting director of USA Boxing explained, "After a
stoppage, no sparring is allowed for at least a month and no
competition for two months. Depending on the judgment of the physician
the restriction might be considerably longer." At the pro level,
there is no national governing body and so state boxing commissions
decide how to handle head injuries. Dr. Tim Trainer, consulting
physician to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, told me, " When a
pro fighter is stopped in the ring, he receives a minimum of a 45 day
suspension from contact and 60 days from competition." Football at
every level needs similar mandatory timeouts.

University of Florida quarterback, Tim Tebow, suffered a concussion in the Gators win over
Kentucky on September 26th. If Tebow were an amateur boxer, there
would not have been any contact for the next 30 days. But he was back
under center in the next game on October 10th.

There can be no doubt that spectators share a portion of the
responsibility for the addled minds of some of the men we love to
watch zipping across our big screens. It is the monster hits that draw
the oohs, ahs and replays. Rule and gear changes could be made that
would make football less perilous but many fans have bemoaned even the
mild regulations recently put in place to protect quarterbacks from
hits to the head. Maybe it is displaced rage, but it is a truism that
violence sells. However, this study makes it plain at what a cost and
who is paying the price.

While this research calls out for concernand guidelines at every level,
the money machine that is the NFL needs
to be willing to take a hit to protect its players. If that means rule
changes and larger more protective helmets, so be it. The public will
learn to live with it. But this protection will also involve nudging
players into retirement, with full payment for their services, before
collisions cause one too many flash bulbs to go off in their brains.