Jenkins: Concussions are the black lung of the NFL

Sally Jenkins

Since the NFL insists on behaving like the coal industry circa 1969, the only solution to its problems is for Congress to step in and regulate the business of these 32 billionaire plunderers. This week, the Department of Veterans Affairs brain bank announced that 76 out of 79 deceased NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. The price for owning a team just went up. Jerry Jones, Bob Kraft, Dan Snyder, Steve Bisciotti, and all the rest, if you want to enrich yourselves at the expense of the ravaged health of others, be prepared to pay for it. Your future is endless litigation, and government interference.

The CTE thunderbolt follows closely on the league’s callous handling of domestic violence cases. A new raft of medical investigations and lawsuits allege that CTE caused some of these devastating domestic explosions, such as Jovan Belcher’s 2013 murder-suicide. CTE leads to aggression, paranoia, impaired judgment, and depression. Junior Seau had it. Dave Duerson had it. And CTE is now being diagnosed in living players such as Tony Dorsett, not just those whose families donated their brains to science.

Here’s the deal: Concussions are the black lung of the NFL. And the league knows it.

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“The reality is we need to talk about this brain injury as an environmental risk factor,” says Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit think-tank devoted to the issue.

If you want to be a mine owner, the price of doing business in that dark and hazardous industry is federal oversight and lifetime compensation for workers who are permanently disabled by your coal dust. The NFL is not coal, obviously; it’s entertainment. But it has a dirty, dangerous problem that looks a lot like black dust. That black dust is spreading; it’s impacting and sickening un-consenting people outside the league – such as wives, and kids.

The NFL has become a public health issue, and that’s not an overstatement. Here’s why: The league spends $45 million a year sponsoring tackle football for children. The league encourages small boys to participate in an activity that beats their heads to pulps and persuades parents that such a thing is okay, in order to keep the participation pipeline going.

Via the USA Heads Up program, it preaches that tackling technique can limit the risk of head injuries in football – despite the fact that not an iota of science supports that claim. On the contrary, the science shows that tackle football for kids is incredibly harmful. A Virginia Tech project demonstrated that the impact of helmeted seven-year-olds is similar in force to that of college players. Brain expert Robert Cantu has been insisting, in vain, for years that we need a helmeted age limit. The NFL has chosen to build its brand on the broken heads of kids.

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“The interaction between the NFL and youth football is a business that affects our children,” Nowinski says. “What they subsidize and pay for, and what their message is, needs to be scrutinized.”

The NFL’s influence over youth football is vast, and critical medically. PBS Frontline reported that 128 former football players were studied by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs brain repository in Bedford Mass., including some college and high school players, not just professionals. Of those, 101 tested positive for CTE. The authors of the study cautioned that the sample may be somewhat skewed because some donors already suspected they had CTE. Nonetheless, the study shows that “the longer you play football, the higher your risk,” according to director Ann McKee. If you let your small child play tackle, and he continues to play the game through college and has pro aspirations, “It’s just a question of whether they will live long enough for this to turn into clinical symptoms,” Nowinski observes.

The NFL doesn’t just have an injury problem; it has a degenerative disease problem, and this transforms the discussion about it. Lots of people choose to do dangerous things for a living, knowingly. As a society, we allow folks to make these individual calculations, as long as we feel they understand the risks, and proper precautions are taken. But there is a serious question as to whether NFL players and their families have had truly informed consent as to the risks of the game.

You think the league ever will voluntarily admit that frontal lobe damage can make you a suicidal monster, or a vegetable? What we’ve been watching these past few weeks in the Ray Rice case, the scandal, cover-ups, evasions, stone-wallings, all lead to the same conclusion: Time after time, the league is dragged into a sense of responsibility only by legal force.

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Congress needs to write the equivalent of the Coal Act for the league, with monetary and criminal penalties for knowing and willful violations of health and safety. Owners should pay mandatory lifetime medical care for brain injuries, as an environmental hazard. Every team should undergo regular OSHA health and safety audits to make sure teams are reporting the statistical prevalence of injuries and players have independent records. The DEA should recognize the problem of chronic abuse of narcotics and other controlled substances, and conduct regular special investigations of NFL trainers and physicians, whose practices leach down to the college and school level. And helmeted football should be prohibited under the age of 14.

Government regulation is never a first choice; it’s a last one. But on subject after subject, the NFL demonstrates chronic insincerity and reckless disregard. League leadership all but ignored painkiller abuse in locker rooms until a Drug Enforcement Agency investigation. It all but ignored domestic violence cases until the Rice cold-cock video forced it to form a more coherent human resources policy – something other American businesses did decades ago. And it ignored concussions until it was sued by 4,500 former players – whereupon it filed court papers revealing that the league has been fully aware that one third of its players will develop Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other neurologic disease.

Congress needs to say to Roger Goodell and the owners who pay him $44 million a year to cover up their dirt and disease for them:”Your anti-trust protected, $10-billion-dollar-revenue-producing, nonprofit, corporate-welfare special status is up. You didn’t take care of your business voluntarily. So now it’s our business.”

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at