My Son Will Never Play Football

January 18, 2016

I know, I know how can this be coming from the woman who writes about sports, used to manage the Duke Football team, talks about fantasy and goes to every football game possible?

I should clarify this a bit. First off, I don’t have a son. But if I did, I hope to God that he doesn’t want to play football. If he did, I would not allow him to participate in tackle football until high school. I can tell you I already had this fear of concussions after my years of watching football weekend after weekend. Then after going to medical school and learning about concussions and traumatic brain injury, my mind was made up. But now…after seeing the movie Concussion, I will be adamant when the time comes.

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So, let’s backtrack: Concussion just came out and I’ll be honest I was holding out on seeing it because I heard Will Smith’s accent was horrendous and quite frankly I was annoyed they could not find an African actor to play the good doctor. I mean come on, David, Idris, Chiwetel. Yes, they are British but at least, they had African parents to know the accent.

After a talk with a friend, I decided that I HAD to see the movie for the following reasons:

1. I am Nigerian.

2. I am a Nigerian doctor.

3. I am a Nigerian doctor who loves sports.

4. I am a Nigerian doctor who loves sports, especially football and blogs about it!

Ok, so you get it! I was going to the movie – Will Smith and all.

I am so glad I did. As a sports fan growing up I got a small glimpse into this devastating injury known as a concussion. Everyone throws the word around but no one really knows what happens just that you can’t sleep for the entire night without someone waking you up to make sure you are alive.

Then in college, I encountered multiple friends/football players who experienced the real deal. They all played again but I do remember one football player in particular. He was diagnosed with post concussive syndrome. I think he suffered from headaches and dizziness, but this is an entity in which a person has multiple diagnosed concussions; therefore, should avoid another concussion at all costs. The keyword there being DIAGNOSED. Who knows how many go undiagnosed.

He had to quit football but lucky for him he was athletic enough to play basketball as well. Unfortunately, he began to suffer from more problems and ended up quitting both. After seeing Concussion, I sincerely wonder how he is now.

Now enter a residency in Radiology. I saw all sorts of head trauma in training. Multiple CT scans and MRIs for people with serious head injuries from falls, accidents, and fights. Yes, fights! I learned that when the brain has an injury in one area – the direct hit – there is always another injury in the opposite area of the brain, usually smaller and sometimes too small to detect on CT at first. We call this coup counter coup. This occurs because the human brain has no cushion except the fluid that surrounds it. So when a hit occurs the brain will automatically bounce back to hit the other side of the skull. Some more than others- stay hydrated people! Hydration status has a lot to do with how full your brain is that day. The fuller the brain the less the bounce around.

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Learning more and more in Radiology I learned about diffuse axonal injury – tiny brain bleeds from trauma. These may not show up on traditional scans at first but may show up later say 6 hrs. So knowing all this and how forceful an impact must be to cause the brain to bleed so that we as radiologists can see it on CT and MR, I began to wonder about the smaller less forceful impacts. Impacts that cause such small brain bleeds that the CT scan and MRI will inevitably miss.

During my residency is the time concussions started gaining PR in the media. This is years after multiple NFL players including Mike Webster and Andre Waters had cognitively deteriorated and killed themselves. My residency was around the time Junior Seau of the San Diego Chargers committed suicide and since I was in San Diego, the news about concussions was seeping into the mainstream culture.

Now concussions are a bona fide celebrity. There is a movie with Will Smith, money is being donated for concussion research including from the NFL, and the NFL finally has actual protocols in place for players who appear to suffer from a major hit or even worse lose consciousness on the field.

All I have to say is it’s about time. In usual fashion, it takes people dying for our culture to turn our attention to the root of the problem. I see a bigger problem. The American love to be entertained and the all mighty dollar driving the business that is professional football. After seeing Concussion, I wonder if the mafia-like interactions between Dr. Omalu and the NFL were truly Hollywoodized or did this doctor who is trying to save lives suffer the fate of exile to Lodi after shining a light on a serious health issue stemming from the violent nature of football.

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Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE FOOTBALL! Those athletes are strong physically, mentally and emotionally. They are graceful and the sport is just beautiful to watch. The Dez Bryant and Odell Beckham Jr. catches after the most perfect spiral in the air from an Aaron Rodgers or Cam Newton. Not to mention the shear strength from the Marshawn Lynches and Adrian Petersons. I along with millions of other men and women can’t help but be mesmerized. Plus, I hold an extra special place in my heart for football after the time I spent with the Duke Football team as a manager in college.

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This brings me to one of the beloved Duke football coaches. One of the kindest, gentlest men I have ever met. His son played football on the team while I was there and you can just tell good people when you meet them. This was a great family. He recently wrote a piece about being an ex-NFL player who is suffering from the early signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy – CTE – the entity coined by Dr. Omalu while he was a pathologist in Pittsburgh. The doctor who Will Smith plays in Concussion. He wrote about how he relies on his wife for health insurance because he currently is not working and because the NFL does not offer health insurance to its former players after 5 years.

I was moved reading this because of my personal connection with the coach, with the sport, and with the health care system. Why can’t a billion dollar company (NFL) supply the people who made them those billions with the basic needs to care for themselves after their career is over? The average length of an NFL player’s career is 3.9 years. There are 1700 players in the NFL currently. The NFL can afford it. Ok, so maybe not every player who plays in the NFL needs lifetime insurance, but how about the players who played more than 5 years? Definitely, the players who suffer career-ending injuries and most certainly the players who will most likely suffer later in life from the hit after hit sustained while doing their job. BTW, this coach I speak of spent more than 20 years in the NFL as an offensive lineman – the same type of position Mike Webster took hit after hit after hit. Oh and he is also in the NFL Hall of Fame.

Dr. Omalu believes every player in the NFL has some form of this like progressive CTE. I agree with him. The NFL claims only 1/3 of the players will be diagnosed with this disease. These are just the players in the NFL. What about the men who played since they were 5 in peewee and never made it to the NFL?

Multiple medical centers have concussion research programs being set in place to find out more about this disease. Most importantly how to diagnose it before a person dies. Even better would be to figure out who is more prone to CTE: People who already have Alzheimer’s in the family or a predilection to the formation of this tau protein? Those people should not play contact sports. Being able to diagnose a true concussion and diagnosing the grade of concussion is in the works as we speak as well. But honestly, by the time an athlete shows any cognitive decline it is too late. These are physically healthy people who will suffer mentally from the repetitive microscopic damage to their brain.

Dr. Omalu just wrote a piece about why boys should not play football. I am sure every NFL executive is cringing, but the good doctor is right. Their brains are not fully developed – especially boys. Why expose them to unnecessary trauma if it can prevented? I think the fundamentals of football can be taught without the blows. Introduce the blows at a later time say high school or college where the intricacies of the game are truly perfected.

I can say, I will likely try to steer my future son from the game. If he insists I may give in for high school. Hopefully, he wants to be a wide receiver or quarterback. Players who are slightly more protected, but I am sure I will hold my breath with every hit. I do now when I see players go down.

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I am so glad I got over my pre conceived shade for Will Smith playing a Nigerian doctor to see Concussion. His accent wasn’t great and he lost it a few times, but I will say this for Will – He had a Nigerian man’s mannerisms down. I could tell he spent time with some Nigerian men.

More importantly, I am glad such a big name is representing not only Nigerians and Nigerian doctors but also because he is bringing more attention to this scary serious issue. All football lovers should see this movie. Be warned: You may walk out holding your breath until after the last game on Sunday.

Have you seen concussion? Will you let your sons play football?

Thank you for reading my review on Concussion. You can read more of my musings on sports, travel, and lifestyle at prettymavensports.com. Twitter and Instagram: @thesensefullife.

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