The Future of Football

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    Harry Carson   Linebacker, New York Giants (1976-88)

    Harry Carson is a Hall of Fame linebacker who played for the New York Giants from 1976-1988. Here, he discusses why he regrets ever having played football. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk on Sept. 4, 2013.

    When the settlement happened last week, what did you think when you heard the terms and saw what had happened and that the players and the league had agreed? ...

    ... When I saw that it was -- the dollar amount was for 20 years, I thought to myself, for 20 years? What's going to go where? And I just thought to myself, the NFL has alleviated themselves of a problem for the next 20 years. So there's probably two decades or two eras of players who will not have anything. They won't be able to talk about head trauma, the concussions that they've sustained. There are two generations of players who will have to just shut the fuck up now and just go on about their business. And the NFL is going to continue to grow and prosper and run commercials to show parents how safe the game is and the technology that's going into the game and the research that's being done. They're going to be showing all of that. I mean, they show it now.

    So perhaps they're looking to win back parents who might be concerned about their kids playing football. The reality is, while there is a settlement, the issue's not going to go away. ...

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    Harry Carson   Linebacker, New York Giants (1976-88)

    Harry Carson is a Hall of Fame linebacker who played for the New York Giants from 1976-1988. Here, he discusses why he regrets ever having played football. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk on Sept. 4, 2013.

    ... So when a parent who watches this television program or picks up the newspaper and reads about the settlement, what do they take away from that? What does that settlement tell the average parent or the kid who's thinking about playing Pop Warner or a high school athlete, or what does a high school coach think of that settlement?

    Well, I think anyone who watches and they use common sense, they'll know that, again, from a physical-risk standpoint, you know what you are doing when you sign up, when you sign your kid up, that he could hurt his knee, OK? But what you should know now is when you sign that consent form, your child could develop a brain injury as a result of playing football when he's concussed. He doesn't have to be knocked out. He could see stars; that's a concussion. You get hit, you get knocked down, everything fades to black; that's a concussion. You can have many little micro concussions if you're an offensive or a defensive lineman or a linebacker taking part on contact on almost every play. So you have those mini-concussions that players sustain.

    And that's on every level of football. It's not just on the pro level; it's on every level of football. ...

    And so I think everyone now has a better sense of what damage you can get from playing football. And I think the NFL has given everybody 765 million reasons why you don't want to play football. ...

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    Harry Carson   Linebacker, New York Giants (1976-88)

    Harry Carson is a Hall of Fame linebacker who played for the New York Giants from 1976-1988. Here, he discusses why he regrets ever having played football. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk on Sept. 4, 2013.

    So what can the NFL do?

    Nothing. They can't do a thing. The NFL can't do a thing. The NCAA can't do a thing. High schools can't do a thing. Pop Warner, they can't do a thing. It is the pure nature of the sport. When you have contact, stuff like that is going to happen. So the reality is, you know, kids fall and they hit their head, and the neck muscles are not quite as strong to resist the head going down, and they get concussed. High school kids, same thing. You're playing against a bigger kid, he runs over you or something like that, you get concussed. When you're in college, you have an inadvertent hit. Tim Tebow, when he played, he sustained a concussion hitting his teammate's knee, I think. They happen. It's part of the game.

    Well, and it doesn't even count the subconcussive hits all around the line of scrimmage the whole game long, right?

    Of course, of course.

    No matter what age you are.

    But when you sustain a concussion, the question is -- because you will; you are at risk of sustaining a concussion -- how is that going to affect you at some point down the line? No one knows. And so you're really rolling the dice. And that's why I said my grandson, I love him to death, and he thinks that he's [professional wrestler] Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka jumping off the couch. But I'd rather have him jump off the couch and bump his head than to go out there and intentionally bump his head against somebody else who might give him a concussion.

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    Chris Nowinski   Co-director, BU Center for the Study of Chronic Encephalopathy

    A Harvard football player turned professional wrestler, Nowinski’s experience following a debilitating concussion led him to found the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to research and education around head injuries. He spoke to FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk on June 12, 2013.

    And the result of what you guys -- the crusade you guys have been on, when you look at it now out here, 10 years out or whatever it's been, Chris, what have you done?

    Well, I think we've accomplished a lot. I think sports are safer than they used to be. I think we have a research infrastructure that actually gives people like me hope that there might be a treatment for CTE at some point. And at this point we've given everyone the opportunity to understand the significance of concussions and CTE. Whether or not they choose to act on it is still a daily fight in families and in sports leagues.

    But at least -- you know, when I got injured, and I continued to lie about my symptoms, it was out of ignorance. And it's very hard to be ignorant today. Everybody has heard about concussions. Everyone knows they're -- at least some of us out there who think this is a major issue. People now have a chance to change what they expose their children to, to change their own course, to not lose their health out of ignorance.

    Is there anything the National Football League can do? Is there such a fundamental problem that it really threatens football as we know it?

    ... If we continue on the trajectory we're on, we're learning a lot more and quickly, I think we're going to find that football poses a risk to our children that we're not comfortable with. And it all depends on how fast and how far we move to change it before this day of reckoning comes.

    I think the day of reckoning comes the day we can identify CTE in living athletes, and we go scan a high school football team. And if we find one, more than one, 10 percent of the kids who already have CTE, that should dramatically change behaviors or what people are allowing their children to play.

    And if football can change fast enough by being flag up to a certain age, by minimizing hitting and by taking every concussion seriously, by providing medical infrastructure and athletic trainers, and they actually become safe in a measurable way, then football will survive that day. ...

    But the reality is in a lot of ways, on a day like today, I feel like football is too powerful. Even as much as we fight and try to get the truth out there, and try to get people to think about this in the right terms about relative risk, about doing what's right for the kids, we'll never have the funding, we'll never have the voice that the NFL has.

    And they, in a lot of ways, can always control the conversation here. They not only control it at the pro level, but they really control it at the youth level, too. So I don't know which way this is going to go, but I do hope that when kids do sign up that they are protected in a way they deserve. ...

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    Related topics:
    The Players Vs. The NFL

    Steve Young   Quarterback, San Francisco 49ers (1987-99)

    Steve Young played quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and suffered seven concussions before retiring in 1999. A Hall of Fame quarterback, Young told FRONTLINE he worries about the toll that routine head hits are taking on linemen and running backs. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted with FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore on March 27, 2013.

    ...So what are the ramifications to the game? The lawsuits, the further science coming out -- what are we looking toward here?

    Tough to change the game. I know that people will chuckle if they hear my representation as a gentleman's game, but I think the game can be that way and taught that way and coached that way and played that way. And a lot of really tough, really tough guys have played it that way for a long time. ...

    Could it kill the game?

    I mean, it's going to be difficult, the trajectory of the issues. It really depends on the science. The science is going to probably decide it. ...

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    Steve Young   Quarterback, San Francisco 49ers (1987-99)

    Steve Young played quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and suffered seven concussions before retiring in 1999. A Hall of Fame quarterback, Young told FRONTLINE he worries about the toll that routine head hits are taking on linemen and running backs. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted with FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore on March 27, 2013.

    And when I asked you about the ramifications, I mean, I guess the other side of it is also it's hard enough to deal with this issue for grown men; then there's kids, all our kids.

    Right. So obviously, impact is different at junior high and even high school, so that's the other problem, is fears work all the way down to 8-year-old peewee leagues. And it's a totally different game, but I understand it, and I understand it with -- my wife really doesn't want the kids to play soccer because she's worried about head injuries.

    That's why I think parents are the ones that really need some bright-line things to know: "OK, I'm a very concerned parent. What do I need? What's the truth? I think I'm pretty good at making some good decisions, but I need to know the facts." ...

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    Dr. Ann McKee   Neuropathologist at Boston University

    Dr. Ann McKee is the director of neuropathology at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Bedford, Mass. In her research, McKee has discovered the disease in dozens of former football players. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk on May 20, 2013.

    ... Lots of little kids playing Pop Warner football. I suppose you're worried about them, too.

    Yeah.

    And high school kids and college young people.

    Yeah.

    Professional football players are presumably contracting, if that's the word for it, the disease you have become expert in.

    Well, they're all vulnerable. Some of them probably are getting it. I just hope that the word is getting out enough that people make wise choices. That's going to have to be parents and coaches and athletic trainers and all of that. And I do see a big switch. I know people have asked me why I don't say football should be outlawed; football should be, suspended at a certain age. I'm not going to do that. I'm not an expert in sports or football. I can only tell you what I see and expect you to make up your own decision. ...

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    Related topics:
    The Players Vs. The NFL

    Leigh Steinberg   Former NFL agent

    The inspiration for the movie character “Jerry Maguire,” Leigh Steinberg is a former sports agent who once represented NFL stars such as Troy Aikman and Steve Young. In the 1990s, he organized conferences to educate his clients about the risks of concussions. He spoke to FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore on March 29, 2013.

    There are now over 4,000 cases where players are bringing suits against the NFL and Riddell [helmet manufacturer]. What does it say to you now that we've come to this part? What's going on?

    I think it poses real financial threat or challenge to the future of football. I love football. I think it has character-building aspects that are difficult to achieve in other ways outside of war. It's got the ability to teach self-discipline, working hard now for future success, teamwork. It builds camaraderie, courage under pressure, all sorts of great values. I wasn't able to stop my kids from playing with everything I know, my two sons from playing high school football. I love it. It's paid for my lifestyle indirectly.

    But these are proximate threats -- the lawsuits and parents prohibiting their children from playing football -- to the future of the sport. The lawsuits will go back to what the NFL knew and when it knew it and what it told the players, because to accept the risk, the players had to know of the risk. But that's an awful lot of liability. It's not just what that financial award would cost if liability is found; it's the future insurance cost and the future liability cost, and what's necessary if there's real information and disclosure as to what the risks are, how much dissuading that does of people to play.

    Now, it's not like people don't understand that boxing has a long-term dangerous effect. There's still people that box because it's their way out of economic hardship, but it changes the way that a parent may look at their child's involvement. ...

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    Leigh Steinberg   Former NFL agent

    The inspiration for the movie character “Jerry Maguire,” Leigh Steinberg is a former sports agent who once represented NFL stars such as Troy Aikman and Steve Young. In the 1990s, he organized conferences to educate his clients about the risks of concussions. He spoke to FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore on March 29, 2013.

    ... But some people will say what you're talking about is the death of football, because you're not going to be able to have neurosurgeons on the sidelines of every high school game in America. You're not going to be able to change this game to such an extent that there's not people --

    There's a difference between neurosurgeons and neurologists. I don't see why you couldn't have neurologists on the sidelines of every game. There are plenty of them. And high school football is a passion. The sport is popular enough that we can meet whatever the needs are, the medical needs of the players, if the will to do it is there. ...

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    Dr. Ann McKee   Neuropathologist at Boston University

    Dr. Ann McKee is the director of neuropathology at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Bedford, Mass. In her research, McKee has discovered the disease in dozens of former football players. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk on May 20, 2013.

    It's almost like the NFL, ... I mean, they have to come up with some kind of a solution to something. A lot of people are talking about this, so they focus on concussions because it's a thing you can focus on. You can see when somebody got their bell rung. You can administer a test; you can hold them out of the game. But what you're talking about --

    But we didn't know about this right at the beginning. You know, at the beginning we thought it was concussions, too. Remember, in 2009, 2010, we thought it was concussions. It wasn't until we started looking at that accelerometer data, we started looking at some of the functional data, we started seeing changes without concussions, that's when we started focusing on just the play of the game. So in the beginning, for them to focus on concussions, it makes sense. It was the obvious target.

    But once they knew what you knew, then what should they have done?

    I don't know, because I think they're really between a rock and a hard place. Football is an extraordinarily popular sport, and the whole game is played around this issue. The whole makeup of the game involves these subconcussive hits. I don't know how they're going to solve that problem. I don't think they know how they're going to solve that problem. So it's a harder nut to crack. ...

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    Dr. Joseph Maroon   Team neurosurgeon, Pittsburgh Steelers

    As team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Maroon and his colleagues developed a now widely used test to determine whether a football player should return to play after a concussion. He is a consultant to the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore on April 17, 2013.

    So lastly, you look into the future of all this, and what do you see for football? What are your worries? Where do you think we will be five years from now?

    I think we're already seeing significant changes in the game. If you look at the rules changes that have been made in terms of kickoffs, in terms of the running backs, in terms of protecting the quarterback, in terms of different kinds of hits, we're seeing major rules changes. I think we're going to continue to evolve in terms of equipment protection. I don't see the sport disappearing.

    Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, as you well know, convened a meeting because there were so many injuries and so many deaths in football that it led to the NCAA being founded and subsequent major changes.

    And I think what's happened, we're in this period of history in the last 10 years with [clinical and executive director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Concussion Program] Micky Collins, with Mark Lovell, with [Sports Legacy Institute co-founder Robert] Cantu, with Bailes, with Omalu, all of us, it's been a major cultural shift.

    We've had congressional hearings. We've had laws passed in 48 states. It's a major cultural shift in sports, particularly related to football, in terms of trying to protect the athletes. I don't see it disappearing, but we're going to see continued change.

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    Steve Young   Quarterback, San Francisco 49ers (1987-99)

    Steve Young played quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and suffered seven concussions before retiring in 1999. A Hall of Fame quarterback, Young told FRONTLINE he worries about the toll that routine head hits are taking on linemen and running backs. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted with FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore on March 27, 2013.

    One of the focuses, of course, is the Mike Webster story for us. And everybody talks about the point, the epicenter of the violence of the game or whatever is the center. What was your thought about that and how the guys on the line took the pressure, every single play?

    I played 18 seasons. That's a lot. There is some that played more. Brett Favre I think played a couple more. There is a few. There is a few guys that played more, but not many. I played a long time, so I feel like I can speak to this with at least a lot of experience that the thing I most fear, and this is now 13 years post.

    Looking at what's happened and kind of taking it in its holistic view, the thing I fear most for players in football is what they're calling the micro-concussions, these things that happen daily, the things that you don't even necessarily notice, practices, games, linemen, running backs, linebackers, just the nature of the game. Not violent hits, because those make ESPN. Those are the ones that are really scary. You really can get hurt. We recognize that. And those are the ones that get the most attention.

    Now they've got all these reviews and neurologists on the sidelines for those hits, and I think they're probably going to get to a place where they can get as much alignment with assumption of the risk and true reality of the game. That will come, and I think it's coming quickly.

    The thing that I worry most about, for linemen especially, you talk about centers and Mike Webster, and that's the stuff that you're seeing come out of the guys that want their brains to be studied. You talk about a nefarious injury, one that you never feel until it's too late. Just when I look back over 30 years associated with football, that's the thing that is most alarming to me.

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