By Eric Rogers
Apr. 26, 2016
“Would I have still decided to play football at the collegiate level knowing what I know now about head injuries and knowing that I’ll get this amount of head injuries? No, I wouldn’t.”
Walker Williams, former University of Wisconsin offensive lineman, 2012-2014
The University of Wisconsin has had its share of football players walk away from the sport due to the possible long-term effects of head injuries. Walker Williams is the latest in a trio of young linemen to leave the Badger program just this offseason. Coincidentally, Arthur Goldberg announced his decision in March alongside Williams, while Hayden Biegel (his brother Vince is still on the team) left a few months earlier.
But Williams said head injuries aren’t an isolated incident at Wisconsin. Having played football his entire life, Williams predicted a concussion-filled playing career for all of those who participate in the sport.
Dr. Julian Bailes said teams at all levels of football are becoming more thorough in diagnosing concussions and have better systems in place to help those athletes recover properly. He said there are no medications currently prescribed to players suffering from concussion-related head injuries and that the uncertainty of future treatment of diseases like CTE and early-onset dementia have caused players to question the benefits of continuing their playing careers.
“It seems such that there’s a trend for more players taking an early retirement because of health reasons, and particularly concerns about chronic brain injury,” Bailes said during a phone interview last month. “So I think that’s happening, yes.”
While playing for the UW, Williams never felt any pressure to step back into the game while dealing with a head injury, but he said it has happened at lower levels of football and he was certain pressure exists at other universities. There’s no documented percentage of collegiate or NFL players stepping away from the game due to long-term risks, but former UW and NFL cornerback Jason Suttle isn’t confident his son should follow in his footsteps.
“I have a boy and he loves football. I’d be fine with him playing football, but honestly, I’d push him towards golf; I’d push him towards baseball; I’d push him towards these non-contact sports just because of the possibility of CTE”
On one hand, the NFL and Jeff Miller, senior vice president of health and safety, appear to have accepted the dangers of playing football and the possibility of brain diseases like CTE. At the same time, there isn’t uniform trust by former players at either the collegiate or professional level that the league is being transparent about the risks of these brain injuries. According to Suttle, comments made by NFL owners at this year’s winter meetings provide some doubt as to the league’s priorities when it comes to acceptance of the effects of CTE. Colts owner Jim Irsay compared the risk of playing football to the risk when taking aspirin. Williams backed up Suttle’s viewpoint, saying “just because they’re on the books saying there’s no risk, doesn’t mean there’s no risk.”
In 1994, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue created the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee in an attempt to learn more about concussions and the effects on NFL players. His decision to appoint Dr. Elliot Pellman, M.D. to lead the committee was met with criticism because Pellman has admittedly put players back in the game after being diagnosed with a concussion.
In December of 2015, an Outside the Lines report claimed the NFL had pulled $16 million out of a seven-year concussion and brain trauma study because the league didn’t believe the researcher assigned to the study was objective. The NFL responded to that report by calling it “inaccurate.”
Dr. Alison Brooks, MD, conducts most of her work with the University of Wisconsin in conjunction with the women’s hockey and men’s soccer programs. She says the UW is partnering with the NCAA and the U.S. Department of Defense as part of a $30 million multi-part study to help better understand CTE and perhaps find biomarkers to determine in living subjects whether or not they’ll develop post-concussion syndromes.
Both Suttle and Williams believe there’s a level of dishonesty happening in the NFL and Williams said a full admission wouldn’t spell the end of the football empire; there would always be players willing to participate in professional football.
Both former players also said the amount of revenue the NFL makes off its players is another reason they feel the league isn’t being more up-front about the potential long-term health effects. Telling players the entire truth about CTE could put their product at risk.
Williams said the NFL’s revenue would only be threatened if there were no consumers for the product.
“If people say ‘until you’re straight-up about this issue, I’m not going to watch the NFL,’” Williams said. “An even bigger thing is if [broadcast networks] say ‘we’re not going to be bidding anymore for Thursday Night Football.’”
While players and the NFL continue to be at odds over the issue, Dr. Alison Brooks, M.D. (University of Wisconsin), and Dr. David Kaufman, D.O. (Michigan State University), have been working behind the scenes to prevent the potentially deadly effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
As heard on The Sports Section | Part 2 Full: Don’t forget to hashtag #ADyingTradition on Facebook and Twitter
Full interview | Walker Williams:
Sources: http://www.foxsports.com/nfl/story/cte-nfl-owners-comments-jim-irsay-jerry-jones-robert-kraft-john-mara-dan-rooney-032916 http://espn.go.com/espnmag/story?id=3644940 http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/eye-on-football/25423215/nfl-calls-report-of-league-pulling-concussion-research-funding-not-accurate