Thursday, April 15, 2010

Football concussions: Who should pay?

By Tom Grant

PhD student, Center for ETHICS*


When old professional football players complain of dementia, the place they turn for assistance is the State of California, as The New York Times reports.

California law says that if you played one professional game in the state, you can file for workers compensation payments for injuries suffered decades before. If the state accepts the argument that repeated brain injuries suffered more than 30 years ago caused dementia in now-aging football players, the total value of those compensation claims could reach $100 million or more. Teams and insurance companies may pay, but if the teams and insurance companies are out of business, a state fund pays the settlement.

Are pros the only ones who deserve compensation? What about college athletes who may be at risk of long-term problems because of injuries suffered during their playing days? A 1999 study of college football players showed reduced neuropsychological performance associated with repeated concussions. A growing body of research indicates that repetitive head injury in sport can lead to premature dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Worries are not restricted to football players. Young soccer players who are injured heading the ball are shown to have deficits of attention, concentration and memory. That’s why some experts say no child under age 14 should head the ball.

The difference between college athletes and professional football players is that students are not paid for their play. For that reason, worker’s compensation laws will never help old college football players if they suffer dementia decades later. Yet the NCAA knows that concussions account for 6 percent of injuries in football. When the NCAA examined fall sports, which include women’s soccer, men’s soccer, field hockey, women’s volleyball, it found that more than 7 percent of injuries were concussions.

That’s compounded by risks in high school athletics, where researchers found that 40 percent of athletes with a head injury returned to action too soon.(To see the story of an Idaho football player who suffered a life-changing football head injury, watch this video.) Most schools do their best to react to head injuries in the short term. In the long term, however, the athlete may be the one carrying the risk. Is that fair?


If former college players get dementia or Parkinson’s disease 30 years from now, should universities step up to help pay their bills?

College football, much like the NFL, takes in huge sums of money from the efforts of the athletes. It does so knowing the risk of injury, not only in the immediate sense but in the long-term sense. Yet amateur athletes are expected to leave their game carrying the long-term risks of sports injury on their own backs. Some would say they assumed the risk by stepping on the field. However, they were insured only for short-term risks, and not the long-term ones.

Is that fair to athletes and good for sports? Should college athletes have as much right to long term “workers compensation” as professional athletes?

Put yourself in the position of a spouse whose husband suffers dementia in his 50’s, 30 years after a college football career in which he had one or two concussions he knew about, and perhaps others he “shrugged off” as part of the game. What would she say?

If the dementia were linked not to head injuries but to exposure to chemicals in a college science lab, would that make any difference is whether the university should be responsible?

Here’s what Dr. Sharon Kay Stoll says.

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