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Concussion talks heating up at Super Bowl

| Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Activist Chris Nowinski is keeping the issue of concussions and their long-term consequences for NFL players in the public eye, and he is doing it during the league's week-long celebration that leads up to Super Bowl Sunday.

Nowinski has made daily rounds on "Radio Row" this week at the Broward County Convention Center, spreading the message that more research is needed on concussions and asking players to consider making a unique donation: their brains.

Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Will Witherspoon is considering giving his brain, after his death, to Nowinski's group, which is studying the link between sports-related concussions and mental illness. Former players such as Jerome Bettis and Tiki Barber are pondering making the same commitment.

Nowinski secured a pledge earler this week from Chicago Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer to donate his brain to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.

Embracing concussion awareness and the steps taken to learn more about brain injuries represent a significant shift. And what Bettis, the former Steelers running back, called "the NFL's dirty little secret" is emerging from the shadows.

"There's more knowledge, more public awareness and potential for improvement than ever before," said Dr. Julian Bailes, who chairs the department of neurosurgery at West Virginia University.

Players taking action

The NFL Players' Association held a two-day conference on concussions last week, the first seminar of its kind.

Among those who spoke to the players were former Carolina Panthers linebacker Dan Morgan, who was forced into retirement because of chronic concussions, and Bailes, who has been at the forefront in the study of concussions and their long-term effects on players.

"It's good it's being addressed," said Bettis, who worries whether he will be able to function later in life because of the blows to the head he absorbed during a 13-year NFL career. "Because it's being addressed, there are going to be some massive changes, and I think it's going to help the players."

New league policies

The federal government is among those watching what changes will come from the NFL.

Congress has made it clear to commissioner Roger Goodell that it wants to see more from the NFL in regard to concussion management.

Goodell went before Congress last October, and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), accused the NFL of negligence.

Perhaps as a result of such pressure, the NFL instituted a new policy in 2009. Players are not allowed to return to the field after sustaining a concussion unless they receive clearance from an independent doctor as well as team physicians.

Bailes, who testified about the link between repeated concussions and long-term consequences such as dementia and depression, said now is the time to institute sweeping changes.

Goodell said Friday at his annual state-of-the-league address that the NFL will consider measures such as cutting back on offseason practices to limit the exposure players have to helmet-to-helmet contact.

Overcoming machismo

This season marked an advancement in the discussion of concussions.

In late November, Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward appeared to question the toughness of Ben Roethlisberger for missing a key game against the Baltimore Ravens because the quarterback was suffering symptoms from a concussion sustained the previous week.

Ward, in a nationally televised interview, said the Steelers' locker room was divided over whether Roethlisberger should play. Roethlisberger has sustained three football-related concussions since joining the Steelers in 2004.

Ward later backed off the criticism, attributing his comments to frustration. But Ward's comments reflected the machismo culture of football.

"When I heard Hines Ward say that, I shed a little tear because I thought: 'That's the last time an active player is going to speak out in a negative way on the concussion issue,'" said Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler who retired in 2003 because of post-concussion syndrome. "I understand where Hines is coming from because that's the same way I was when I played. I know Hines has not been educated on the risk to Ben's career if he goes back and suffers another concussion. That's the part that's been missing, that player education."

Barber, who retired in 2006 after a 10-year playing career with the New York Giants, agreed.

"I know I played with concussions," Barber said. "I think raising awareness is the most important thing. The problem with football players is you're taught from a very young age that no matter what, you get back out there and play."

Cumulative effects

In a published paper, Bailes said players who sustain three or more concussions during their careers are more prone to depression and dementia than the general population.

Thursday, the Brain Injury Research Institute (BIRI) at West Virginia announced a partnership with the Gridiron Greats Assistant Fund, which helps former players pay for medical care.

BIRI isn't the only organization conducting extensive research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, of which Nowinski is a director, studies the brains of former players who sustained repeated concussions.

Nowinski said Dr. Ann McKee has examined the brains of 12 former college or pro football players. All, he said, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is the accumulation of protein in brain tissues that can cause dementia or Alzheimer's.

Nowinski said McKee needs to study 100 brains before drawing any conclusions.

The NFL, he said, has pledged money toward the study and encouraged players to donate their brains to the group.

"(Players) understand this will help them in the long run," Nowinski said. "This will help us get a handle of what's going on."

The message makes it an easy sell to the players, Witherspoon said.

"You're trying to increase a guy's longevity in the game and make sure he's healthy after the game," said Witherspoon, an eight-year NFL veteran. "We all understand this is a game where you are going to come out with some type of disability, regardless. But you want to be as healthy as you can."

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