The NFL has been dealing with it’s share of concussion related issues, the latest coming last week with the death of Junior Seau. His death has once again revived the post-concussion syndrome debate and spotlights concern among youth who play the game. The NFL has taken steps to ensure player safety the last few years, asking for independent neurological assessments should symptoms occur. They have also created a checklist type of evaluation, making it mandatory the player not return to action should they not pass the test. Combined with the movement of kickoff placement to the 35 yard line, the league has taken measures to safeguard itself and players from future brain injuries.
On the other end of the spectrum are those players whom were active before post-concussion syndrome became an issue. Nearly 1,600 players now have filed lawsuits which allege the league refuted the connection between concussions and brain injuries. There have even been allegations of a cover up. In response, the league has stated the allegations have no merit. Just how much or how little the league may have known is up for debate. For the players however, many of them live through the effects they attribute to concussions which occurred during their playing days. As alleged by former player Steve White on CBS 1010 Tampa “Two Hand Touch” Sunday, some team doctors refuted or ignored concussion studies as advances were made.
The potential for bodily or life threatening injuries in football and all sports has always been there from the outset. Still, business goes on as usual and players flock for a chance to play in the NFL. Concussions are no longer an unknown variable. The long term effects and understanding of the causes are well known to both players and teams. One thing is for certain; ignorance can no longer be claimed by either party.
The current lawsuit against the NFL and their defense against the allegations all come down the same point; responsibility.
Instead of harping on who’s responsible, it’s more important to focus on another point Steve White eloquently touched on. As has been observed for years, some players face challenges once their careers are over. Once the limelight fades and the glory is gone, the process of adapting to society and life without football emerges. The transition can be a tough one for some, while others make it look so seamless. As Steve White pointed out, many deal with depression and other mental health issues. Though some of these issues are side-effects of post concussion syndrome, they are also rampant in a society which does not play football. Mental health illness is something we as a collective country have failed to take responsibility in addressing.
A little known secret about this country is how rampant mental health issues are in the United States. In a 2007 study by the National Mental Health Association, the U.S. had the” highest annual prevalence rates for mental illness among a comparison of 14 developing and developed countries.” The most common form of mental illness was and still is depression. According to the World Health Organization, a study conducted in 2011 reported France and the U.S. were the most depressed countries in the world. They believe the societal expectations in wealthy countries could be a key factor in explaining the statistics. As a result of depression, the study cited an estimate of 30,000 people a year who commit suicide while hundreds of thousands attempt to do so. In other words, the pressure to succeed and expectations we put on ourselves can lead to mental health stresses when we don’t meet those expectations.
In the competitive world of sports, those expectations of success start at a young age. It starts in the little leagues of sports, then moves on through high school, college and maybe professional sport. Even if you are one of the lucky few to find success at the highest levels, what happens when the music stops? Now a whole new set of expectations for success arrive when the athlete becomes just another member of the working class. In these terms, it’s hard to find a more competitive field which starts at such a young age. Sports teach us many valuable lessons and the positives far outweigh the negative aspects. However, maybe it’s time to look at those negatives and understand them?
Every career field has a drawback. Some are physically health related drawbacks, some financial and some are mental. It comes with the territory of our work and we prepare ourselves best we can. With mental illness, 80% of people who struggle with it’s forms on average do not get help until nearly a decade after it’s development. How many of those people in these studies that were athletes is not known. What makes it even harder for most athletes is the “machismo” persona many develop which can keep them from seeking help. Men in general carry these persona’s, a development of a competitive society. As Steve White pointed out, many believe it’s something they can deal with on their own. The reality is when your mind is what’s affected, the very tool needed to heal is what needs healing.
The concussion debate will linger on with finger pointing at who was or is ultimately responsible. While things will have to play themselves out in the court system, both the NFL and the players can take pride in the responsibility they both share. Ironically, their dispute has shed light on a topic kept in darkness for far too long. Mental health illness has a long history of being swept under the rug and avoided. What has always made America great is our willingness to adapt, evolve and learn from our mistakes. Those mistakes and taboo topics in our past have been addressed and shifted towards making progress. Hopefully, mental health illnesses like depression can become part of our past as well. The more former and current players like Steve White talk about it, the more it will be received by all. Our current day gladiators of sport are human as well. It’s ironic that by addressing their weaknesses publicly, they not only become stronger, they can make a nation stronger.
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