Former Giant Carson on NFL Dementia Study: "They Shouldn't Bullshit With This Data"

12/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An article on page A1 of Wednesday's New York Times spotlighted a recent NFL-commissioned study showing the disproportionately higher rates of dementia and other cognitive diseases among ex-football players.

The story was front page news, but the results of the study -- and the NFL's curious response of undermining them -- were decidedly not news to Harry Carson, the Giants Hall of Fame linebacker-turned advocate for retired players.

Carson was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome in 1990, and is one of many ex-players frustrated by the league's reluctance to acknowledge the connection between a football career and future cognitive problems. Despite numerous independent studies suggesting a link, the NFL had long insisted on conducting its own studies. After the first of these was released, the league did not exactly embrace the results.

Wrote the Times' Alan Schwartz: "An NFL spokesman, Greg Aiello, said in an e-mail message that the study did not formally diagnose dementia, that it was subject to shortcomings of telephone surveys and that 'there are thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems.'"

"Memory disorders affect many people who never played football or other sports. We are trying to understand it as it relates to our retired players," Aiello went on to say in the article.

In a recent phone interview, Carson -- team captain of the Giants 1986 Super Bowl winning team, esteemed as much for his leadership as his run-stuffing ability -- gave his response to the NFL's response.

"I'm pissed off that they commissioned their own study and now they don't put any stock in it," he said.

"When these studies come out, there are always these denials. I resent these denials -- it dishonors everybody who played the game. But I expect that from the NFL. To acknowledge it, they'd be open to a lot of claims and they'd have to pay a lot of money. They can deny it, but the players who played, we know."

Carson has never been one to take his leadership responsibilities lightly. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, he used his speech as a platform to pillory the league and its players union over their treatment of retired players' health benefits. These days, he continues his advocacy as a member of the Board of Directors for NFL Alumni. He said a handful of his ex-teammates and other former players have approached him with reports of their symptoms.

"Guys come to me because they still consider me to be their Captain or someone who understands their situation. But they beg me not to share this information with relatives or friends because they're worried what people are going to think about them," he said.

One former player confided in Carson that his wife "has taken the car keys from him because he might go somewhere and not remember how to get home."

In a complementary article to the front-page story, Schwartz noted that players are eligible for up to $110,000 annually in disability aid, but only for conditions developed within 15 years of retirement. This structure does not account for cognitive impairments that set in after 15 years.

Carson, 55, noticed his post-concussion symptoms shortly after retirement while working as a television analyst. "I'd just start forgetting stuff -- I'd mispronounce a name, or I'd lose my train of thought," he remembered.

He estimates he suffered between 12-18 concussions in his career, none of which caused him to miss more than a handful of plays and certainly none "like the one Tim Tebow got" last Saturday.

It has been nearly 20 years since he has been diagnosed. His symptoms are now unmistakably present but manageable, he said. He avoids noisy restaurants, events with flash photography, and other situations that might trigger a headache. To remember even household tasks, he relies heavily on his Trio handheld device.

But though his condition might be manageable now, he fears what the future might hold.

""These guys who are dealing with dementia, it's like I'm looking at my future. They can't speak up for themselves, so that's why I run my mouth," he said.

"For some of these guys, something needed to be done last week. The league is in a position to maybe do something, so they shouldn't bullshit with this data and try to sugarcoat it. If you're thinking about the image of the league, you might want to find a way to remedy these problems."