Response to Trump's speech demonstrated NFL's unwillingness to deal with concussions

Donald Trump’s speech at a rally for Luther Strange on Friday has garnered plenty of attention because of his comments directed at athletes who do not stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” However, his diatribe against players who sit or kneel for the national anthem has completely overshadowed another radical stance he took when he said that the game has become too soft because of rule changes that were enacted to protect players from head injuries.

By now we have all heard that the repetitive hits to the head that accompany football can be life-threatening. The day before Trump’s speech, the family of Aaron Hernandez announced they would be suing the NFL after evidence of “the most severe case [of CTE] they had ever seen for someone of Aaron’s age” was found by researchers at the CTE Center at Boston University. Hernandez hanged himself in his cell in April after being sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Odin Lloyd and after standing trial for a double homicide of which he was ultimately acquitted. At the time of his last NFL game, he was 23 years old. He died four years later at the age of 27. Meanwhile, the potential PR crisis the league may have been preparing to face became an afterthought by Friday evening.

--- Background ---

Allegations of the NFL knowingly allowing players to participate in a deadly game have been around for decades. A 1997 study from the American Academy of Neurology was the first to state that repeated concussions could lead to brain damage. More articles and studies came out in the early 2000s. They looked into the current mental health of former professional football players in regards to memory loss, depression, speech or hearing difficulties, and Alzheimer’s, among other things.

In 2005, Dr. Bennet Omalu officially diagnosed the first case of CTE ever, after three years of examining the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers’ great Mike Webster. During Webster’s autopsy, Omalu’s initial guess as to what caused the Hall of Famer to Taser himself to sleep and live in a beat up pickup truck was dementia pugilistica, or “punch-drunk syndrome.” It had been associated with boxers as early as 1928, and was known to create memory problems, dizzy spells, speech issues, and dementia in athletes who took repetitive blows to the head, as boxers do.

Webster was known to possess many of the same symptoms, but at first glance, the tell-tale signs of dementia pugilistica weren’t there. So Omalu ordered countless tests costing tens of thousands of dollars to find the culprit.

And then he did.

Brown and red sludge spots that had killed cells in the parts of the brain that controlled emotions and moods. They were ubiquitous, but not on the surface of the brain. They were hidden deep inside the tissue where only the most precise and careful examinations could discover them.

His findings drew immediate backlash from the NFL and their Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee. His research had been backed by extensive fact-checking and proven work, yet the league was hell-bent on discrediting his work as quickly and broadly as possible. Whether it was purely in naïveté that this was just a one-off case or whether they were trying to avoid damaging claims to their multi-billion dollar enterprise, league officials dismissed Omalu and his Webster study swiftly and brutally.

In 2006, a ruling came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that stated Webster had been permanently disabled as a result of brain injuries from professional football.

By 2007, four more former players had died in similarly tragic fashion, and Omalu had studied them all and found CTE present in each one. The league continued to say the findings of Omalu and others were flawed, or hearsay, or speculation.

In 2009, the University of Michigan published a study that stated playing in the NFL had been a "very positive experience for most retired players." The study had been backed and funded by the NFL Players Care Foundation. It also noted that retired players were 19 times more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Omalu’s work up to that point was made into a major motion picture starring Will Smith as Dr. Omalu. The highly-anticipated film was released on Christmas Day, 2015, and many members of the media and the scientific community believed it would accelerate change in NFL culture about dealing with and preventing head injuries.

--- The game’s response ---

The NFL has been slow to do anything that resembles true change with the best interests of its players in mind. Rules have been put in place that call for major penalties and fines when a player strikes another in the head, but minimal change to helmets or equipment has been enacted, save for a practically useless rule forcing players to wear the same helmet all season long.

In 2011, a host of former players and their families filed a class-action suit against the league in regards to the potential of developing degenerative brain diseases. The initial $765 million settlement was retracted in 2014 after the judge overseeing the case questioned the ability of that amount of money to cover all the plaintiffs. It wasn’t until this past June that money from the settlement began to be distributed, after the payout was upped to over $1 billion.

Through the ordeal, the NFL has maintained a position of not being liable for the deteriorating health conditions of the players it has made its billions of dollars off of.

--- Trump's words and the NFL's actions ---

Donald Trump’s speech displayed a blatant lack of understanding of the dangers playing football poses. More studies are being done that state children shouldn’t be playing football until high school. Studies from Boston University have found CTE present in 186 out of 190 former players that donated their brains to research. And yet, people like Trump keep decrying the minor changes the league introduces because they believe it erodes the quality of the sport.

There is a clear connection between how the game is played and the effects it has on those who play it. Perhaps the most harrowing part of the narrative is that CTE can only be diagnosed post mortem, meaning despite all the warnings and symptoms that may arise throughout the life of a football player, it can only be confirmed once it’s too late to treat.

Unfortunately, the way the game is played means there will always be a risk to develop these diseases. Or arthritis. Or paralysis. But the cries from the ignorant paired with the silence of the league only further demonstrates a tacit will to keep the machine finely-tuned and ensure the deep pockets of the league’s shareholders remain full above all else.

The NFL's response to Trump's speech only hinted at his comments on anthem protesters, while completely ignoring his remarks on the state of safety within the game.

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