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The NFL won’t win the concussion narrative

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Despite their efforts to control the narrative on concussions, the NFL won’t win this.

Rob Kelly

Rob Kelly, a former 1997 second-round draft pick out of Ohio State, played four seasons in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints before retiring in 2002 with the New England Patriots. A spot starter and special teamer, Kelly finished his NFL career with four interceptions, one returned 79 yards for a touchdown. Since his retirement, Kelly has faced similar neurological issues that’s dominated post-career narratives.

His wife, Emily Kelly, wrote an op-ed with the New York Times detailing how Rob Kelly has declined over the years.

I was right to be concerned. Over time, I had started to notice changes. But this was different. And things became increasingly frightening.

He lost weight. It seemed like one day, out of the blue, he stopped being hungry. And often he would forget to eat. I’d find full bowls of cereal forgotten around the house, on bookshelves or the fireplace mantel. The more friends and family commented on his gaunt frame, the more panicked I became. By 2016, he had shrunk to 157 pounds. That’s right, my 6-foot-2 football-player husband weighed 157 pounds (down from around 200 when he was in the N.F.L.). People were visibly shocked when we told them he had played the game professionally.

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When you live with someone with brain damage, you become highly attuned to your environment and develop an intimate relationship with your senses and intuition. Your hearing becomes excellent, almost unbearably keen, like a movie character who develops supernatural abilities overnight. Rob has dramatic mood swings and I always have to be in tune with early signs of his agitation. I try to protect him from stress so he won’t be overwhelmed. It’s exhausting.

Every argument we had ended with me thinking: “This isn’t normal. This is not what couples fight about. Something’s wrong.” Our fights went in bizarre circles and were never resolved. He would be irrationally upset about one thing but would quickly lose track and begin rambling about something that had no connection to the topic at hand.

She found comfort discussing her experiences with others who are facing similar challenges. Sadly, it’s a familiar story, one in which the NFL refutes.

An alarming number deceased NFL players who had their brains donated for research, were found with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) -- it’s hard to deny that CTE isn’t prevalent and widespread in the NFL. Former Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry had CTE when he died. Former running back Larry Johnson says that he “fights self-destructive impulses, mood swings and fits of rage.”

“I didn’t grow up with mental issues, being bi-polar or anything being wrong with me. I was a shy kid,” Johnson told (NBC 6 anchor Jawan) Strader. He added that once he started playing football at age 9, he noticed changes in his character.

The league, due to tremendous public pressure, eventually acknowledged the impact of concussions and CTE after years of denials, knowing that such an admission would lead to culpability. That changed when over 4,500 former players filed a class action lawsuit against the league in 2011. The lawsuit, several years later, was dropped after a $1 billion settlement was reached, covering over 20,000 retired players. The NFL continues to drag their feet in distributing those funds.

Former Bengals tight end Ben Utecht suffered a concussion so devastating during training camp 2009, that he was rushed to the hospital. Cincinnati released him within three months. Utecht, who suffered five documented concussions in his career, filed and won a grievance against the Bengals, claiming that he wasn’t “sufficiently tested” and that the team owed him nearly $1 million. Utecht wrote a book about his experiences, admitting to memory loss.

Concussions are very real. Rob and Emily Kelly will face significant challenges for the rest of their lives.

But who these men have become is not who they are, and I write that with conviction. The symptoms they display are beyond their control and occur through no fault of their own. These men chose football, but they didn’t choose brain damage.

Yet, the NFL still portrays a sense of ignorance.

A 2017 study, led by neuroscientist Ann McKee, found:

In a convenience sample of 202 deceased players of American football from a brain donation program, CTE was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177 players across all levels of play (87%), including 110 of 111 former National Football League players (99%).

This is astonishing, but you’re not really that surprised, are you? The NFL’s response:

“We appreciate the work done by Dr. McKee and her colleagues for the value it adds in the ongoing quest for a better understanding of CTE. Case studies such as those compiled in this updated paper are important to further advancing the science and progress related to head trauma. The medical and scientific communities will benefit from this publication and the NFL will continue to work with a wide range of experts to improve the health of current and former NFL athletes. As noted by the authors, there are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause, incidence and prevalence of long-term effects of head trauma such as CTE. The NFL is committed to supporting scientific research into CTE and advancing progress in the prevention and treatment of head injuries.

”In 2016, the NFL pledged $100 million in support for independent medical research and engineering advancements in neuroscience related topics. This is in addition to the $100 million that the NFL and its partners are already spending on medical and neuroscience research.”

The league’s pledge doesn’t always translate to actual money being spent. When the NFL pledged a $30 million donation to the National Institutes of Health, they only spent $14 million before the NIH allowed the partnership to expire. Per ESPN:

NIH officials decided months ago to let the agreement expire in August with more than half of the money unused, following a bitter dispute in 2015 in which the NFL backed out of a major study that had been awarded to a researcher who had been critical of the league, Outside the Lines has learned.

The NFL responded by contributing $100 million in research for “Play Smart, Play Safe”... an initiative launched and administered by the NFL. In other words, they are donating $100 million to themselves to study concussions. Of that $100 million, over half will be used to research a new helmet design, hoping to reduce the number of concussions. ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru followed up on the story with a predictable response from the NFL:

The NFL declined to make any of its health officials available for comment. When declining one specific request, a league spokesman cited previous “unfair” treatment by ESPN’s Outside the Lines. In the past, the league has said it is guided by player health and safety. Several NFL-affiliated researchers have suggested that scientists such as Boston University’s Dr. Ann McKee and Robert Stern, aided by the media, have oversold their findings, sowing unwarranted hysteria over the risks of playing football and other contact sports. McKee, a neuropathologist, announced in July that out of the 111 brains of former NFL players she has examined, 110 had CTE.

When talking/writing about concussions, you’re perilously circling the rabbit hole. Despite their efforts to control the narrative, the NFL won’t win this. Not while there’s people like Emily Kelly, who will spend the rest of her life helping her damaged husband.