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As the Suicides and Brain Injuries Pile Up, Can Football Ever Be Safe?

Worth asking before more lives are ruined.

As the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens prepare for Sunday’s Super Bowl, the safety of football is coming under increasing scrutiny as more evidence emerges about links between concussions and brain damage. President Obama recently weighed in on the issue, saying, quote, "If I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football."

Research shows repeated blows to the head can lead to chronic headaches, deteriorating memory, early dementia, and even premature death. Former football All-Pro Rodney Harrison revealed this week he’s now, quote, "scared to death," after a career filled with concussions. He spoke with NBC’s Bob Costas.

RODNEY HARRIS: I would get up, hit someone. The entire stadium is spinning around. And I will walk to the sideline. They’ll hold me out for one play. They’ll give me two Advils, and they will tell me, "Get back into the game." The  NFL, if they are guilty of anything, it’s the lack of awareness that they brought and the lack of education that they told us. They never told us or explained to us or even let us know what a concussion was. I had no idea until just recently.

And even since I retired from the Patriots in 2008, I would still experience headaches. I would play on Sunday, and I would experience headaches up until Tuesday and Wednesday. And even now, at times, there’s a sense of loneliness, a sense of isolation, some anxiety problems. And sometimes I just—I get headaches. Like even being in bright lights, I get headaches. I’m out golfing. It’s tough.

And people have to understand that these players, yeah, a lot of their agendas, it’s based on money, but a lot of these players are really, really suffering, Bob. And this stuff is for real, because I’m experiencing it now. I’m scared to death. I have four kids, I have a beautiful wife. And I’m scared to death what may happen to me 10, 15 years from now.

AMY GOODMAN: Former NFL All-Pro Rodney Harrison. While concussions were once an unspoken and misunderstood problem, today more than 4,000 former  NFLplayers have filed a lawsuit against the league. They contend the  NFL, which makes $9.5 billion a year, knew hits to the head could lead to long-term brain damage but chose not disclose that information.

Meanwhile, new rules are being instituted to minimize future injuries. For example, a player can no longer lead with his helmet or hit a defenseless opponent.

For more, we’re going to New Orleans, just outside the Super Bowl, to speak with the author of the book on which that film was based. His name is Chris Nowinski, author of  Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis. Chris is a former professional wrestler who’s become a leading expert on sports-related head injuries, also former football player at Harvard University. He co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute, now co-director of the Center for [the] Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine, which maintains [an] ex-athletes’ brain bank to study the effects of concussions.

Chris Nowinski, welcome to  Democracy Now! You’re at the Super Bowl, and you’re there to highlight something that is just really beginning to be talked about, as many players bring suit against the National Football League. Can you talk about brain injuries? Can you talk about what it means to have a concussion—what people are probably going to watch a lot of on Sunday?

CHRIS NOWINSKI: Sure. Yeah, I mean, I found out—I had the same experience as Rodney Harrison. I didn’t know I was getting concussions my entire career, until it was too late. When I was on the field, whether playing football or wrestling, I’d get hit in the head, and I would black out. I’d forget what I was doing, the sky would go orange, and I would just try to tough it off. And what we’ve learned through our research at Boston University is that, over time, that can trigger a degenerative brain disease that will eventually, you know, take away your memory, your—your ability to put together sentences, like right today. But in our last study we published in December, 34 of 35 former professional football players had this disease, nine of nine former college players, and even six high school players. So, we’re really concerned about the football—the last few generations of football players.

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