Duerson’s CTE Finding Must Change NFL Concussion Debate From Consciousness-Raising to Accountability

by Irvin Muchnick on May 3, 2011

Dave Duerson had CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The finding on the brain of the 50-year-old retired National Football League star, who committed suicide in April, was announced at a Monday news conference conducted by doctors at Boston University’s Center for the Study of CTE, Chris Nowinski’s Sports Legacy Institute, and Duerson’s ex-wife and four children.

The Boston group deserves the victory lap it is taking for raising consciousness about concussions in contact sports. Everyone should view Nowinski’s video on the subject, “Game Changers,” at http://youtube.com/watch?v=yeSsYOgGJW4.

At the same time, there is a danger that the NFL’s belated activism in finding a cure for CTE and promoting sports safety reforms is way too little and way too late. That is why I asked the following question at yesterday’s event:

Mr. Duerson served as a trustee on the NFL Player Care committee that reviews disability claims of retired players. A league spokesman told me that a total of 11 claims to the Mackey 88 Plan for dementia-related acute-care expenses have been rejected. There is some additional number of line-of-duty and disability benefits that have been rejected, and many of those also involve brain injuries – a subject that certainly weighed heavily on Mr. Duerson. In light of this new information confirming that he was himself of diminished mental capacity when he participated in these NFL Player Care deliberations, do you agree that there is a moral, if not also a legal, obligation to reopen the files of these rejected claims?

Nowinski replied that his organization was not in the business of telling the NFL how to distribute disability benefits. He also said that the Duerson CTE finding could not be extrapolated to determine just when and how, or even whether, this player and fallen business tycoon came to incur “diminished mental capacity.”

Though fair enough as far as the response went, this reticence to use the Duerson cautionary tale for more aggressive generic comment on the political landscape ahead may point to the limitations of the Sports Legacy Institute’s new million-dollar partnership with the NFL. In a related vein, I believe the question is not whether youth football coaches should be cutting back on contact in practices; it is whether youth football should exist at all.

Further unfortunate fallout from the public progress on concussion reform is the schism between the Boston group and the West Virginia Brain Injury Research Institute headed by Drs. Julian Bailes and Bennet Omalu. The latter, now chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, California, is the researcher who took the NFL head-on while more established voices were still equivocating – often in journal articles authored by doctors with league connections and other commercial conflicts of interest.

A hint of the Boston-West Virginia turf war was evident yesterday after Boston University’s Dr. Robert Cantu correctly linked CTE to the phenomenon of “punch drunk syndrome” in boxers, which was first isolated in 1928. Cantu went on to suggest, incorrectly, that CTE became widely recognized in the sixties and seventies. In fact, the pathology was neither named nor defined before Omalu came along in 2002. If there was widespread awareness of the scale of concussion syndrome in the immediate aftermath football players such as Al Toon getting blasted into early retirement in the 1990s, then the NFL made sure it was a well-kept secret.

In any case, the point isn’t who gets credit for the discovery of CTE so much as who will pay the bill for the current generation of sports-generated broken lives. This exercise runs deeper than the NFL’s bottom line. Half-baked prospective solutions driven by an image-conscious, money-hungry corporation will not significantly arrest the CTE pandemic. And as writer Matt Chaney has noted, it is non-professionals and their families – along with the nation as a whole – who bear the brunt of the NFL lobby’s current campaign to shift responsibility to state legislatures mandating new practices by cash-strapped school and other amateur athletic programs.

A better idea: Make Commissioner Roger Goodell and his 32 owners cough up some realistic restitution for the brain-injury mill from which they profit so obscenely. A mere $20 million in research grants and $7 million in aid to retired players with dementia won’t cut it. That was the background of my question at the Duerson press conference. I’ll take my answer off the air.

Irvin Muchnick (blog http://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com; Twitter “@irvmuch”) is author of CHRIS & NANCY: True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death.

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