Aspen Ideas Fest explores head games of football
June 29, 2012
ASPEN – Kevin Turner was a football player from age 5 to 30, but now he might be paying the ultimate price for playing the game he loved.
Turner figures he suffered thousands of blows to the head and too many concussions to count during his football days, which included eight seasons as a hard-charging fullback for the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.
He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2010. Turner suspects all the blows to his head are linked to his disease. He has agreed to donate his brain and spinal cord for research once the disease takes him.
Turner was the star of a panel at Aspen Ideas Festival on Thursday night that discussed the brutality of football and what should be done to protect the players. The segment included a screening of Jon Frankel’s documentary “American Man,” which skims Turner’s illustrious career and blankets the medical challenges he faces as a man in his 40s.
Turner is bankrupt, divorced and coping with his disease, usually fatal within just a few years of diagnosis. But his most painful challenge might be determining whether his two sons should play football. At one point in the film, Turner raises a salient point: “Common sense should tell you you shouldn’t be hit in the head this often this early.”
The panel discussion, which included some of the key figures in the debate over brain trauma in football and what to do about it, revolved around that point.
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Pro football Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown suggested America needs to put aside its love affair with football to make sure it protects the youngest players. It must ensure the college and professional players understand the risks and help care for those who get injured.
“For many years, the NFL has been in denial, and there’s a saying: ‘These things aren’t football related,'” Brown said.
Now research is showing that many debilitating injuries suffered by players, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, are linked to the game.
“I’ve been a (vocal) advocate of taking care of our wounded warriors,” Brown said.
He is optimistic about steps the NFL is taking in that regard. Coaches cannot insert players when it’s known they have a concussion. He said he met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell within the past three weeks and that they didn’t disagree on any points.
Brown, still a large presence and an imposing figure at 76 years old, both praised football and criticized it. Under the right conditions, he said, it is still a “fantastic game.” Hard hitting is part of the game.
“Football – the greatest heroes are the hardest hitters,” he said.
But Brown also criticized the tough-guy culture that America’s most popular sport has bred. He recalled suffering one concussion during his playing days. He got his bell rung so severely that he couldn’t remember the plays and sat out. An assistant coach put pressure on him, noting that another injured player had returned to the game.
“The cold concept of being macho man has now been proven to be ridiculous,” he said.
Turner agreed that the culture and pressure that high-paid players put on themselves is a big contributor to the injuries. Nobody wants to come out of a game because they feel they’re letting down their team.
“The culture of ‘just keep going despite the cost’ has to stop,” said Turner, whose words are occasionally slurred and whose hands are curling as his disease progresses. He is still a handsome man who commanded attention and standing ovations from an audience of a couple hundred people at Paepcke Auditorium.
The panel included Chris Nowinski, a former NFL offensive lineman who is heading organizations spreadheading research into consequences of football concussions, and Dr. Daniel Garza, of Stanford University.
Nowinski said he doesn’t want to destroy football with research.
“We don’t stop people in America from doing dangerous jobs,” he said.
His focus is informed consent and protection for kids. NFL locker rooms now inform players that the blows from their game might cause early-onset dementia, he said. He lauded pro, college and youth football organizations for limiting contact in practices. Youth football has more to do, he said. He wants tackle football banned for kids. Their necks and bodies typically aren’t developed enough for their large heads, which take too many blows during the course of a game.
The idea of only allowing flag football for kids younger than 14 got the panel members’ endorsement, though Nowinski pressed for greater protections for all players, especially those younger than 18.
“It’s not anti-football. It’s pro-children,” Nowinski said.
Technology has arrived that lets parents use their smartphones to determine how many head hits their kids have experienced in practice and games, he said. Parents and coaches must use those tools to their advantage, he said.
All panelists agreed there has been a tremendous increase in research on football injuries in the past decade and better information is coming. Despite his condition, Turner has decided to allow his oldest son, who is entering his freshman year in high school, to play football. He wouldn’t let him play last year, and he still won’t let his youngest son play.
Turner said there are great tools available now to diagnose concussions, and his oldest son has promised to be honest about hits.
“I kind of gave in,” Turner acknowledged. “What’s the chances he’s going to play until he’s 30 like I did?