01/30/2014 12:37 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2014

The Great American Concussion


Super Bowl mania is upon us. A din of media reports about the half-time extravaganza, Richard Sherman's swagger, and frigid playing conditions in MetLife's open air stadium fuel the suspense and excitement for what is billed to be the most watched television show in U.S. history. News of football's "concussion crisis" is also making the rounds. In recent years, the NFL has come under scrutiny for downplaying the dangers that repeated and frequent blows to the head pose to the health of its players. Pushback against the NFL started in 2002 with the untimely death of 50-year-old Mike Webster, a former Steelers player who struggled with amnesia, dementia, and depression in the last decade of his life and whose brain, upon postmortem investigation, showed uncharacteristic pathologies that could only be explained by a history of repeated head injuries. Since 2002, more and more retired NFL players are coming forth with stories of post career debilitating memory loss and are eager to have the latest medical technologies at their disposal to show proof of their injuries.

I applaud these efforts but can't help asking: What took so long? Proof that football is a serious health hazard--especially all those knocks to the head--has existed for over one hundred years. From the time of the game's infancy, the American Medical Association condemned football as an "unnecessary menace to health and life." An early 1902 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association wryly pointed out that there were enough casualties from the game to "supply a respectable Spanish-American War." The most serious accidents of the game, physicians knew, were fractured skulls and brain injuries that resulted in "long-term insanity." Understanding the severity of these injuries, two Harvard physicians expressed frustration that football players treated concussions "as a joke." New Jersey pathologist Harrison Martland found it no laughing matter. Studying the brains of boxers in the 1920s, Martland wrote about the long-term affects of head injuries of retired boxers who exhibited Parkinson-like condition and "marked mental deterioration" that consigned many of these men to a life in the asylum. Sound familiar? It will to the friends, families, and fans of players such as Mike Webster, Junior Seau, Owen Thomas, and many others.

Why has a century's worth of evidence been forgotten? Why did Dr. Richard Schneider not create more of a stir with his 1973 book Head and Neck Injuries in Football, which argued that injuries to the brain cause serious, permanent disability and that players who survive these injuries are never again able to function "normally and effectively"?

Why? Because when it comes to "America's greatest game," spectators willingly forget bad news. It's a forgetfulness of convenience, one that has allowed the NFL to become a 9 billion dollar industry on the backs--and heads--of modern day gladiators whose life expectancy is a mere 55 years of age (compared to the national average of 76). When just a few years ago NFL-employed physicians denied any linkage between repeated game-related head trauma and late life dementia, such disavowals could only seem plausible to a nation suffering from historical amnesia, a nation that had forgotten the voices from our past who knew better.

There will be a lot of media coverage of the Super Bowl this weekend. I have found none as candid as those early twentieth century editorials written by concerned physicians, who wanted to reform--and in some cases, abolish--the game. "To be a cripple or lunatic for life," wrote one, "is paying high for athletic emulation." These physicians made no bones about pointing the finger at football authorities and coaches who encouraged "dirty play" and the crowds of spectators who cheered wildly for ever greater spectacles of brutality. If you (yes, even you, the spectator) did not actively discourage the savagery of football, another editorial implored, then you are more or less responsible for the havoc it wreaks.

Waking up from a one hundred year blackout can be painful and disorienting, but in this case, lives depend on it.