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Hard Knocks: Does Playing in NFL Cause Brain Trauma?

November 27, 2009 at 4:48 PM EST
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A House committee heard testimony from medical experts in October, as well as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to determine whether professional football contributes to brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's. Ray Suarez reports.
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SYLVIA MACKEY, wife, John Mackey: Remember this jacket, honey? Honey? Stand up. Look. Look at me. That’s your — he’s smiling.

WOMAN: Got his Hall of Fame jacket on and smiling, huh.

RAY SUAREZ: John Mackey probably doesn’t remember the NFL Hall of Fame jacket he gave away when dementia first gripped him a decade ago. But with the help of his wife, Sylvia, he tries to enjoy moments of nostalgia for his days a pro football receiver in the ’60s and early ’70s.

Today, the Hall of Famer, just 68 years old, is in assisted living, complete with a beeping security system to stop confused residents from wandering off.

Are there good days and bad days?

SYLVIA MACKEY: Yes, and great days and not-so-great days.

RAY SUAREZ: On the good days, how is it different from — from what we’re seeing now from Mr. Mackey?

SYLVIA MACKEY: He will get up and walk up and down. He can — he will throw and catch the ball. Actually, today would be a good day if it weren’t for the myoclonic twitching. They call it a myoclonic jerk.

RAY SUAREZ: And speech?

SYLVIA MACKEY: He doesn’t talk anymore, very rarely.

RAY SUAREZ: Mackey was diagnosed with dementia when he was just 60. His wife believes a career in the NFL left him with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease. She became convinced of this as John declined and when she noticed more and more former NFL players expressing similar mental illness.

SYLVIA MACKEY: Every year, he would go back to the Hall of Fame ceremony, and, every year that I went back, I noticed that more and more players — and these were Hall of Fame guys — had dementia.

And I — this was after he was diagnosed. I was so taken aback by it. And I thought, there’s something wrong with this picture. It’s just too much of a common thread right here in this small group. And I said, if 260 — out of 260 players, if I can see four or five who have been diagnosed, and I’m hearing about others who seem that they will need to be diagnosed in the future, then there are plenty out — of retired players out there who must have it.

Seeking action from the NFL

RAY SUAREZ: Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee went looking for answers from the NFL, its players union, and medical professionals.

Specifically, Chairman John Conyers wanted to know if the league was ready to accept a connection between its game and severe brain disease.

REP. JOHN CONYERS, D-Mich., judiciary committee chairman: Commissioner Goodell, is there a link between playing professional football and the likelihood of contracting a brain-related injury, such as dementia, Alzheimer's, depression, or CTE?

ROGER GOODELL, commissioner, National Football League: You're obviously seeing a lot of data and a lot of information that our committees and others have presented with respect to the linkage. And the medical experts should be the ones to be able to continue that debate.

But our bottom line is, we are not waiting for that debate to continue. We want to make sure our game is safe, and we are doing everything we possibly can for our players now.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, I just asked you a simple question. What's the answer?

ROGER GOODELL: The answer is, the medical experts would know better than I would with respect to that, but we are not treating that in any way in delaying anything that we do. We are reinforcing our commitment to make sure we make the safest possible field for our...

REP. JOHN CONYERS: All right. OK. I have heard it.

RAY SUAREZ: The chairman and several other committee members were frustrated by the league's skepticism in the face of medical research showing lasting brain damage with concussions and other head trauma in football.

One recent study commissioned by the NFL and conducted by the University of Michigan found that 6 percent of retired NFL players over 50 years old reported a diagnosis of dementia, Alzheimer's, or another memory-related disease. That finding, compared to a less than a 2 percent figure in U.S. men of a similar age, drew headlines and prompted this congressional inquiry.

The report's author, however, was careful not to draw a direct link from football to dementia.

DR. DAVID WEIR, research professor, University of Michigan: Those numbers may or may not indicate an elevated risk from a career playing football. We can't draw a conclusion, and no responsible scientist would do so.

Clear signs of trauma

RAY SUAREZ: But other doctors say the signs are clear.

DR. ANN MCKEE, neurology and pathology associate professor, Boston University: None of my colleagues have ever seen a case of CTE without a history of head trauma

RAY SUAREZ: Neurologist Dr. Ann McKee is studying the brains of former footballers at Boston University.

Is there a way that we can draw a straight line from somebody's career in the NFL with the problems they are having as a 45 year old?

DR. ANN MCKEE: Well, what we have seen in all of these players is a -- is a trauma-induced disease. It is caused by trauma. And, so, I don't think there is any question about what has caused the disease in these players.

Most of them got most of their trauma during the NFL years. And I think it is time to actually recognize that, and to not bury that data with excuses that it might be something else.

RAY SUAREZ: The committee also heard testimony from several former players. Merril Hoge enjoyed a long career as an NFL running back, until a series of concussions led him to quit.

MERRIL HOGE, retired player: There have been significant changes in the National Football League, based on the NFL and the NFL P.A. What happened to me would not happen in the National Football League today. That does not mean we are all the way there. We are on our way.

RAY SUAREZ: Repeated injuries ended Ralph Wenzel's pro football career, too. Diagnosed with cognitive impairment in 1999, he now has full-blown dementia. Three years ago his wife, Dr. Eleanor Perfetto, could no longer care for him.

DR. ELEANOR PERFETTO, wife: I know that he doesn't want to live the way that he lives. And I know that he doesn't want to see anyone else live that way, either.

RAY SUAREZ: Now she's urging the league to admit it is facing a crisis.

DR. ELEANOR PERFETTO: It's very frustrating that the NFL denies that the evidence is there, that they deny that there is a relationship. I think it's -- it's disrespectful of the players. It's disrespectful of the families that are going through this. It's bad and endangers young people, young students, student athletes who are playing football now. I think the NFL really needs to step up and take a very proactive role.

RAY SUAREZ: The head of the Players Union is DeMaurice Smith.

Tackling the problem

DEMAURICE SMITH, executive director, National Football League Players Association: We are committed to getting the right answers, to work with everyone who has the goal of protecting our players, and to serve as a model for football at every level.

We have done a tremendous job in outlawing and penalizing hits on a defensive player, cutting down on helmet-to-helmet contact, doing a better job of players who do get injured, how we respond to those players on the field, following up on the medical technology of how long they need to be out of the game after they have suffered a concussion.

RAY SUAREZ: In fact, the NFL changed that rule only two years ago. Since 2007, no player knocked unconscious in a game can return to that game. The Eagles' star running back, Brian Westbrook, took a knee to the head in Monday night's game and was out. His coach calls him hopeful for next Sunday.

But Dr. McKee worries that players are returned to the field too quickly.

DR. ANN MCKEE: My thinking is that you really need to rest that nerve cell, and those nerve cells are very jarred by the experience. And they get -- they have all sorts of microscopic and metabolic changes that actually go on for weeks after that injury. So, you have a concussion one day, and, six weeks out, your nerve cell is still slightly unsettled. It's not really back to its resting state. And if you are injured a second time while you are already in this sort of limbo state, the consequences are much greater.

RAY SUAREZ: By the end of the hearing, the NFL agreed to share its research into concussions more widely, including the results of the Michigan study next year. For Sylvia and John Mackey, that step is welcome.

SYLVIA MACKEY: Football is dangerous. It's not going to go away. They just need to be prepared. And people choose to do it. You choose to do it or not. Nobody makes you do it.

So, they need to provide for the unusual maladies -- the usual maladies that are unusual that go along with playing the sport. You know what I mean.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks to the Mackeys, the NFL does provide $88,000 per year for care to the 70 former pros actually diagnosed with mental impairments, $88,000 in honor of John's jersey number, 88.

SYLVIA MACKEY: Who did you play for? Did you play for the Baltimore who? Baltimore?

JOHN MACKEY: Colts.

SYLVIA MACKEY: Right. That's right.