Heads Up! 49ers Write New Chapter of Their History

by Irvin Muchnick on January 20, 2012

With the 49ers hosting the conference championship game Sunday, these are heady times for local football fans. Last Saturday, Donte Whitner forced a goal-line fumble by the New Orleans Saints’ Pierre Thomas in a play that may go down in the annals with the stop by Dan Bunz of the Cincinnati Bengals’ 275-pound fullback, Pete Johnson, in the Niners’ first Super Bowl victory 30 years ago this month.

What a lot of fans don’t know is that Bunz and his buddy and ex-teammate, George Visger, are about to meet with Visger’s state senator, Ted Gaines of Sacramento, to discuss traumatic brain injury in football. This follows a recent lengthy meeting in Southern California between Visger and U.S. Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, who, in 2009 hearings of the House Judiciary Committee, had become the first prominent elected official to use the T analogy – tobacco – to characterize the National Football League’s “slow walk” of the concussion issue.

Visger, who has lived with a shunt in his brain and without short-term memory – yet works as a wildlife biologist and is a leader in ex-players’ efforts to get their due from the NFL’s shamefully corrupt retirement and disability plan – is penning a book for my ebook imprint, which will be published in two weeks, just before the Super Bowl.

Regarding Whitner’s historic tackle, let’s not dwell on the fact that it was a helmet-to-helmet hit. I’m not the concussion police. I don’t know the intentionality of the blow that knocked Thomas unconscious and out of the game. And I do know that the size, speed, and stakes of pro football and its participants make it impossible both for an outsider to judge and for the rule book to prevent.

But as the author of another new e-book, UPMC: Concussion Scandal Ground Zero, I do seek every opportunity, including home-team celebrations, to spotlight the underreported public health toll of youth football. My blogosphere muckraking colleague, Matt Chaney, is about to publish a study proving his allegations of the serious inadequacy of annual reports issued by director Frederick Mueller and medical director Dr. Robert Cantu’s football industry-funded National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. Chaney’s injury totals double or triple the ones widely accepted as authoritative.

For 2011, Chaney has come up with a “minimum” of 29 survivors of severe head injuries such as brain bleed or swelling, cerebral clots or vessel malformation, or skull fracture; at least 10 appear to involve permanent impair. Around 20 required brain surgery. In addition, there were 72 survivors of severe spinal injuries, seven of cardiac arrest, and one of a heart attack.

There were 20 deaths that can either be directly (football collision) or indirectly (e.g., heatstroke) pinned on football.

Heatstroke is an example of a category the UNC researchers don’t categorize as catastrophic. Others include blood clots; lacerated, ruptured, or bruised kidneys; serious injuries to the gall bladder, appendix, pancreas, or spleen; femoral artery rupture (requiring leg amputation); crushed facial bones; and collapsed lungs.

Chaney adds: “My 2011 tally does not yet reflect other grave football casualties retrievable in Google, such as the staph infection Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), or peripheral paralysis like damage to the deep peroneal nerve – an injury that permanently paralyzed a lower leg of mine during a 1982 team scrimmage when I played at Southeast Missouri State University.”

Cantu, the oft-quoted face of chronic traumatic encephalopathy research at Boston University, has not responded to Chaney’s requests to address these asserted defects in the UNC catastrophic injury reports.

And strictly as a lay observer, I note that none of the above even begins to talk about CTE itself, a condition that usually becomes evident later in life and as a consequence of cumulative football-induced trauma, rather than a discrete episode.

As for the public tab in terms of broken families, decline in academic achievement, reduction in workforce productivity, rise in violent criminal behavior? Who knows? The $10-billion-a-year NFL, meanwhile, spends comparative pocket change on research it largely controls, and lobbies state by state for “concussion awareness” legislation to put more of the burden on public school districts, which feel compelled to buy the products of such concussion-industrial-complex players as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and its ImPACT “concussion management system.”

This week I came across the most heartwarming quote I’ve seen in some time from another player: Dr. Howard Derman, co-director of Houston’s Methodist Hospital Concussion Center. Just as UPMC is the official sports medicine provider for the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL and the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League – doctors-to-team paid endorsement contracts and all – the Derman group in Houston serves the same function for the NFL’s Texans, Major League Baseball’s Astros, and Major League Soccer’s Dynamo. Methodist Hospital offers young athletes ImPACT baseline tests for $5 a pop, and freely circulates materials on such topics as “Return to Play Defensive Back,” “Return to Play Wide Receiver,” and “Return to the Classroom After a Sport-Related Concussion.”

Discussing the youth tackle football leagues of greater Houston, in which more than 1,000 kids as young as 5 play every year, Derman told the Houston Chronicle: “I’m not saying it’s safer to play football as a child [than other activities], but the plasticity – flexibility, in layman’s terms – in the brain is greater in a child, and it has more room to swell. So things we see in adult football players are slightly less of a concern in children.”

This might be the most exotic argument I’ve heard yet from the “concussion awareness” crowd: it’s better, not worse, for little kids to get their brains bashed … precisely because they’re still growing!

Irvin Muchnick blogs at http://concussioninc.net and is @irvmuch on Twitter. His new ebook, UPMC: Concussion Scandal Ground Zeron, is available at http://amzn.to/A0HQ2g.

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