Brian Westbook and Brain Injury 3/7/10
Recently the Philadelphia Eagles released running back Brian Westbrook. It is no exaggeration to say that Westbrook was one of the best backs in franchise history and one of the elite backs in the National Football League (NFL).
Westbrook’s versatility made him very hard to defend against. While he could run and pass equally well, I think it was his agility and skill as a receiver that made him especially dangerous. Really, almost no linebacker could match up against him.
Early in his career, he was a great punt returner as well. He will forever be remembered by Eagles fans for his 2003 punt return against the Giants in the Meadowlands. With less than two minutes left to play in the game, Westbrook took it to the house and saved the game.
Last year, Westbrook’s season and his life were dramatically altered when he sustained two concussions. He ran into linebacker London Fletcher’s knee in a game against the Redskins. He was out cold for a number of minutes. After sitting out four games, he returned to football but he suffered a second concussion on a totally unmemorable play. He played very little after that.
While football players always say they are coming back after serious injuries and the money is a huge lure, I sincerely hope Westbrook retires.
There is a body of medical evidence which shows that repetitive trauma to the brain, football-related concussions, can cause permanent brain damage. The harm has been amply demonstrated.
There is even a name for the condition: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In the October 19, 2009 issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about CTE and described it as follows:
“..a progressive neurological disorder found in people who have suffered some kind of brain trauma. CTE has many of the same manifestations as Alzheimer’s: it begins with behavioral and personality changes, because it takes a long time for the initial trauma to give rise to nerve-cell breakdown and death.”
The Science Daily website says that CTE is characterized by a build-up of a toxic protein called tau in the form of neurofibillary tangles and neuropil threads throughout the brain. The abnormal protein initially impairs the normal functioning of the brain and eventually kills brain cells. Early on, CTE sufferers may display clinical symptoms such as memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control. Eventually, CTE progresses to full-blown dementia.
Gladwell reports on CTE researchers, particularly Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist. Omalu diagnosed a number of former players who are now deceased as suffering from CTE. These include former Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, former Steelers center Mike Webster, and former Steelers linemen Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk. In the Gladwell article, he quotes Omalu:
“There is something wrong with this group (people diagnosed with CTE) as a cohort. They forget things. They have slurred speech. I have had an NFL player come up to me at a funeral and tell me he cannot find his way home. I have wives who call me and say ‘My husband was a very good man. Now he drinks all the time. i don’t know why his behavior changed’. I have wives call me and say ‘My husband was a nice guy. Now he’s getting abusive’. I had someone call me and say ‘My husband went back to law school after football and became a lawyer. Now he can’t do his job. People are suing him’.”
Gladwell’s article provokes many questions. While focus is on concussions, he asks about the effects of multiple little hits. Football players will likely take hundreds and even thousands of these hits depending on the length of their career. How bad is that? He raises questions about hits in practice. Should full contact practices be banned?
Designing better helmets is an obvious reform. But, the Gladwell article is not optimistic that current technology could design a helmet that would absorb enough shock to make that much difference. At least, not in the forseeable future.
It is hard not to think that the price of football is CTE and it appears to be a price that we as a society are more than willing to pay. We love our football.
There are clear parallels between boxing and football. Research on boxers shows they stand a twenty per cent risk of dementia. It is a good question to ask about football: what is the risk? 10%? 20%? higher?
A while back, I saw a Sports Illustrated article about how poorly the NFL cares for older former players who became disabled playing the game. It reminded me of the way we treat veterans. Once they are finished service, they are forgotten. They are on their own.
I hope when Brian Westbrook hits 50, he is not another Muhammed Ali. Hopefully, the NFL pension and disability system will improve and protect players, including those who do not have Westbrook’s fame and money. In thinking about Ali and Westbrook, they both had gamy attitude but for Westbrook’s sake, knowing when to hang it up might be the difference between an active future and a life with a brain turned to mush.