Dr. Jonathan Lasson: Is head trauma in the NFL an issue? I am a fan of sports, football and the Baltimore Ravens. I am also a fan of neuroscience. When I read the tweets from former Baltimore Raven, Le’Ron McClain, my concern for the game escalated to another level. His tweets read “I have to get my head checked” and “my head is messed up.” His most recent tweets sounded more ominous and more desperate. I hope that he is receiving the help he needs.
I have seen the price that NFL players pay for the beating they take on a regular basis. I have tested and treated a number of ex NFL players for damage done to their brains through NFL head trauma. I have heard the stories of players who experience severe depression and suicidal thoughts as a result of multiple concussions and early retirement from the game. I remember testing an ex-NFL player who had accomplished a tremendous amount during his career. During my initial intake of this player who could barely utter a coherent word as a result of damage to his brain, I said to myself, HOW SAD!!! As a kid I watched him play and was very fond of his athletic prowess. Now he was sitting in front of me about to undergo an extensive battery of neuropsychological assessments, wearing an adult diaper. His buddy had to sit right next to him in order to prop him up and interpret what he was saying. At one point, I had asked him if he feels like he accomplished much in his career, to which he responded, “not a f#$%^g thing.” He was penniless and suicidal.
Fast forward to pre-Season 2019.
Andrew Luck is retiring! Luck is not the first to decide that he did not have the head for football anymore.
Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel decided to hang up his cleats at age 26. He will pursue his doctorate in math at M.I.T. He made this decision soon after the release of a study of 111 former NFL players. All 111 players aside from one, showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This is a condition that is degenerative and associated with repeated hits to the head. Urschel’s decision came after Buffalo Bill linebacker A.J. Tarpley surprised everyone by retiring. Before that we saw 49ers linebacker Chris Borland leaving the NFL out of a fear of the long term effects of constant blows to the head.
As mentioned above, I am a fan of neuroscience. I remember teaching neuroscience to seniors at Beth Tfiloh High School in Baltimore. I asked some students if they could survive even one hit to the head. They cringed at the thought of having their head knocked around the way NFL players take on a week to week basis. Of course, showing videos and images of a severely atrophied brain can scare anyone, even supposedly invincible high school seniors.
Nowadays, we can only rehab the brain so much. Science and medicine have their limits. Although our understanding of the brain and head trauma has improved, many football players will continue to scratch their heads as they decide whether football will be their career.
Dr. Jonathan Lasson is an adjunct professor of psychology and is in private practice in Baltimore, MD.