Does football cause brain damage? The evidence remains sketchy and completely inconclusive, but is nevertheless suggestive:
Bennet Omalu, a man who knew nothing about football and was a soccer goalie in his homeland, believes he has proven that repeated concussions in football lead to early-onset dementia, very similar to the boxing ailment known as “punch-drunk syndrome,” possibly leading to dementia and depression.
Omalu has been able to examine four brains — those of former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linemen Mike Webster and Terry Long and former Denver Broncos running back Damien Nash. Webster, Long and Waters all showed signs of severe punch-drunk syndrome, and Long and Waters committed suicide. Nash, who died Feb. 24 after collapsing following a charity basketball game, did not. But he was just 24 and barely had played in the NFL.
And while the link between Webster, Long and Waters, who all suffered emotionally and intellectually in their post-football lives, has encouraged some researchers, others question the validity of Omalu’s work, suggesting his research is sloppy and the evidence is insufficient. Either way, he needs more brains.
Omalu has found that, in at least three brains, there are the tell-tale red dots of abnormal protein, generated by the brain after being hit. Normal brains quickly recover from these impacts. But brains that are chronically hit eventually lose the ability to recover from the violent collision. The neurons then start to die. Dementia sets in.
I’d feel better about the NFL (and the incipient NFL draft) if I felt confident that the NFL was really obsessed with getting to the bottom of this medical mystery. The minds of their players are at stake.