Ever since I retired from professional football in 1999, I’ve traveled the country as an ambassador for the game, and I’ve gotten a lot of different questions from parents of young players. It used to be that I’d get quizzed on diet or workout routine or the intricacies of reading a defense.
Now, one question comes up more than any other: “Should I let my child play at all?”
That’s no longer a surprising question, given what we’ve learned about the potential for injury, especially in the brain, as Will Smith’s latest movie, “Concussion,” shows.
My answer? “Yes. But…be aware of the risks.”
We’ve long known that there are benefits to playing football, like any organized sport. The gridiron may be the world’s best classroom for teaching teamwork, communication, hard work, and goal-setting. I’ve carried those lessons throughout my life, and so has my son. It’s provided him an exceptional college education and molded him into a young man of confidence and discipline.
Those benefits have to be balanced against the risk of brain injury. Coaches and teams have gotten better at monitoring the health of their players, which has resulted in a 35% reduction in concussions since 2012, according to the league’s Health and Safety report this year. With dozens of rule changes to protect players, a new “medical time out” option and additional studies of new technologies to reduce injury, it’s never been safer to play professional football. And the youth game, too, is following suit.
For young players, there is a focus on the immediate consequence of the injury. The symptoms of concussions make it dangerous for players to return to the game, and they may interfere with basic daily living, including academics. That alone is reason to follow guidelines closely.
But the dangers of long-term damage from repeated concussions must be understood as well, and that’s the biggest change from my playing days: none of us — doctors, coaches, players—had any idea of the lasting impact.
One of those impacts is a little-known but increasingly common neurological condition called PseudoBulbar Affect (PBA), which can lead to uncontrollable, sudden outbursts of crying and/or laughing. About 7 million Americans have the condition that can occur in people with neurological conditions such as traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, stroke and Alzheimer's disease.
While other consequences of concussions have received attention, PBA remains stubbornly off the radar screen of most players, youth and professional, and I’m on a mission to help change that.
Given the frequency of head injuries among former football players, it’s likely that some have PBA. To get a better sense of how wide spread this often misdiagnosed or ignored condition is, the non-profit organization Gridiron Greats conducted a survey of retired players. Among more than 500 respondents, nearly all players had experienced head trauma or injury during their football career, and that one-third experience symptoms of PBA.
Now, laughing and crying may not seem like a serious medical condition to some, but being unable to control these outbursts can have a devastating impact on a person’s well-being. According to the survey, players said the frequency and severity of PBA symptoms had a negative impact on their everyday activities and family relationships.
Still, these players didn’t bother to tell their doctors about their symptoms because many felt like it was just depression, or they were too embarrassed to mention it. Others thought their symptoms were just part of their head injuries and didn’t think their doctors could offer any answers. It’s important for these players, and others with PBA-symptoms, to know that doctors can help, and that there are options to consider.
I know many Americans like me and my family love playing and watching football. While we need to be more vigilant in protecting players and being aware of conditions such as PBA, we shouldn’t stop those who enjoy the sport from participating.
I originally wrote this piece for the Detroit Free Press