TBI And The NFL; The Wives Battling On Behalf Of Their Brain-Injured Husbands

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I blogged a while back when Gay Culverhouse, president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, decided to make an issue out of brain injury amongst former professional football players.

Now a group of these players’ wives has joined the fight, and one has decided to duke it out in court, as this great New York Times piece explains:

Eleanor Perfetto’s worker’s compensation claim on behalf of her husband, Ralph Wenzel, asserted that his early-onset dementia was an occupational hazard of his seven seasons as a lineman in the N.F.L. Having heard league officials say for years that high rates of dementia in former players either did not exist or could not be ascribed to football, Perfetto, who has a Ph.D. in public health, said she wanted to end all doubt in the courts.

Perfetto, who declared herself “one very pushy broad” while testifying before the House Judiciary Committee last October, is one of six women from diverse backgrounds who have redirected the discussion of brain trauma. They range from players’ family members to a former team president, from a congresswoman to a leading neuropathologist.

“There is a sense of: ‘What is she doing here? She doesn’t belong,’ ” said Representative Linda T. Sanchez, Democrat of California, whose blunt criticism of the N.F.L.’s concussion policies during last fall’s Congressional hearing led to changes in league protocol. “People underestimate you, and it makes you very powerful.

“That’s something that’s afoot here with these women. The N.F.L. is so male and macho and testosterone-dominated, I don’t think they figured that women were going to be a force to be reckoned with in this thing, and they’re finding out the hard way.”

If it takes a “pushy broad” to fight for her husband’s health — and it does even far beyond the N.F.L. — these men are damn lucky to have one on their team.

Here’s an amazing, lengthy feature on this issue, from GQ, by Jeanne Marie Laskas.

For those unfamiliar with traumatic brain injury, or TBI, it’s the signature war wound — invisible yet life-altering — of the Iraq war, as soldiers encounter IEDs and their vehicles, bodies and brains — like nuts inside a shell — are shaken extremely hard.

400,000 High School Football Players Got Concussions This Year: What Exactly Is The Point?

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 25:  NFL Commissione...
NFL Commissiomer Roger Goodell;Image by Getty Images via Daylife

There is a photo in today’s New York Times sports section that breaks my heart — former player Brent Boyd, who suffers headaches, squeezing his face between his huge palms. (The photo on the Times’ website is so tightly cropped it only shows an impassive Goodell. Boyd’s huge shoulders don’t make it into the frame.)

The story details why it matters so much that the N.F.L. reconsider how badly it’s willing to injure its players – because a whole new generation of younger athletes, and their coaches, are modeling their behavior accordingly. Coaches routinely tell an injured athlete to “walk it off” and most teams have no ready access to a physician to know when a player needs to get off the field now.

“More than 1.2 million teenagers play high school football every fall, and hundreds are seriously injured by concussions and other brain trauma…About 400,000 concussions occurred in high school athletics during the 2008-9 school year — more in football than in any other sport” says the Times.

Have you or someone you know or love ever suffered a concussion? It’s scary shit. Two summers ago, my sweetie took a fall while riding his bike, falling hard — even wearing a bike helmet and not going that fast — onto the sidewalk. He was able to ride up to meet me, his shorts torn and a weird look on his face. “What day is it?” I asked him.  Right answer, immediately. “What’s your name?” Ditto. Count my fingers. Right.

“What did you make for breakfast an hour ago?” He shook his head. Off we raced to the local hospital. I sat up with him most of that night, as doctors told us to make sure there were no side effects or changes in his behavior or physical condition. It was terrifying and he has not ridden a bike since. I know he will, at some point. But he’s an adult, under no social or financial pressure to throw his body into situations that can, and likely will, hurt him physically, both now and decades from now.

Surely no sport — no ghetto-fleeing, life-changing college scholarship — is worth this cost. Is it?

Gay Culverhouse Fights For Brain-Damaged Football Players

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 25:  Benjamin Watson...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Football players, as any player or spectator knows, hit each other hard, repeatedly. It’s their job. But years of it can result in mild traumatic brain injury — the same trauma now playing into record rates of PTSD and impairment among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, whose brains have been severely jarred by IED explosions. And TBI causes permanent behavioral and cognitive damage.

Gay Culverhouse, former team president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is now testifying before a Congressional committee on behalf of the former players for her team, on behalf of all players still tossing themselves — as their coaches or managers or owners expect them to — into bone-crunching piles.

Her testimony included this:

“Foremost is the fact that players need to be protected; the medical system harbored by the NFL must change. There should be doctors without vested interests and allegiances available to the players at no penalty. There should be medical advocates for the players. There should be an independent neurologist on every sideline. There should be salaries free of performance bonuses so that players are not pushed beyond what is reasonable. There should be mandatory guidelines for concussions specifying the number of weeks a player MUST sit out games. There needs to be a call for common sense to prevail in the National Football League.”

“Recently one of my former players referred to me as a “rebel with a cause”. By breaking ranks with the National Football League, I have become that rebel. My cause is the health and wellbeing of all football players whether they are eight year olds or twenty-two year olds. Safety must come first. Business must come second.”

Culverhouse reserved her strongest scorn for team doctors who shoot up players at halftime or overlook injuries:

“The team doctor is invested in the performance of these players who make the team. He does not want to be seen as lacking in assisting the coach in his selection. The team doctor wants these players to succeed in helping the team win games. The team doctor gets to the point where he will do anything to enhance the performance of these rookies. With very few draft choices, the decisions on whom to draft are critical to a team’s success. Hence, from the beginning, the team doctor is invested with the coach in the success of their choices.”

“This alignment is the crux of the problem for the players on the team. The doctor is not their medical advocate. He’s not even conflicted. He knows who pays his salary; he plays golf with the coach and the owner not the players. He is management; he makes decisions for the management side of operations. He understands the bottom line is business. The team that wins, sells more luxury seats, skyboxes and fills the stadium. Therefore, more parking is sold on game day along with more beer, sodas, and cotton candy. That is the term of success.”

“If a player suffers an injury, the team doctor’s role is to find a way to have that man on the field the following game, if not the same game. The player is shot with cortisone
during the game to see if the pain can be numbed if it is a joint or other such problem. If it is a head injury, he is told to “shake it off”. The players get to the point that they know better than to complain that they have suffered a concussion. They would rather throw up in the huddle away from the fans’ lines of vision and keep themselves in the game. Other players will guide them through the next few plays until their double vision resolves itself.”

Yesterday, one NFL wife, Eleanor M. Perfetto, reports George Vecsey in today’s New York Times, described her husband’s behavior as so changed she had to put him into a facility as was she unable to care for him. She said her husband, former lineman for seven years, Ralph Wenzel, was lucky to have a “pushy broad” of a wife as his advocate.

Thank God for these angry, outspoken women.