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Original Issue

One Big Headache

As more players become afflicted, the NFL is finding concussions a tough problem to tackle

HARRY CARSON realized something was wrong when he was doing television commentary. The former Giants linebacker would be on the air, live, and he'd lose his train of thought. Carson suspected the concentration issue was connected to other symptoms he'd been experiencing—headaches, blurred vision, a loss of his sense of smell, and sensitivity to lights and noises—and he went to see a doctor. "I thought I had a brain tumor," he says. The problem turned out to be postconcussion syndrome. Carson, 53, now a member of the Brain Injury Association's Sports Injury Prevention Council, estimates he had between 15 and 18 concussions during his 13-year Hall of Fame career, though he never reported any of them. "Pain and hurt and being uncomfortable was ingrained in me as a player," he says. "No one knew because I kept it to myself."

That macho attitude is changing. Last week athletes and others were talking openly about concussions, and their words penetrated the pre--Super Bowl rumble and buzz. Retired Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, 34, told The New York Times he suffers from depression and mental lapses and that he is addicted to amphetamines he takes to alleviate his symptoms. He traces his problems to 2002, when he sustained a concussion and, he says, coach Bill Belichick continued to send him into full-contact practices against the advice of the team's trainer.

Johnson's story echoes those of former Steelers center Mike Webster and Eagles safety Andre Waters, both deceased. Webster, a four-time Super Bowl champ, was frequently homeless and living out of his car when he was diagnosed in 1998 with brain damage caused by multiple head injuries. He died of heart failure in 2002 at the age of 50. Waters committed suicide on Nov. 20 at age 44, having suffered multiple concussions during his 12-year career. He was said to have the brain tissue of an unhealthy 85-year-old.

But while these tragic tales resonate with fans, two people in a position to help have not come off as especially sympathetic. NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw told The Charlotte Observer last year that the brain-damaged old-timers didn't pay his salary and "can complain about me all day long" for not championing their cause. Last Friday at his state of the league address, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell seemed defensive when asked about Johnson. "I don't accept the premise that [returning too early from concussions] was common practice," Goodell said, "but it does concern me."

It should. A 2001 survey by the University of North Carolina's Center for the Study of Retired Athletes looked at 2,552 retired NFL players and found that 24% had sustained at least three concussions. Those who had were two to three times more likely to suffer from depression and three times as likely to have mild cognitive impairment, a precursor of Alzheimer's disease.

Dealing with football concussions is daunting because hard hits are part of the game. "You want to avoid any blow to the head, but in sports with collisions these things happen," says Dr. James P. Kelly, a concussion expert at the University of Colorado. Players also feel they must play with an aching head or blurry vision—or risk losing their jobs. "The pressure is intense; there's always someone on the bench waiting to take your place," says Dr. Kenneth Podell, director of the Sports Concussion Safety Program at the Henry Ford Health System. "If the fear of repercussion is less, that you won't lose your job [for saying you can't play], that would help tremendously." Last week Belichick told The Boston Globe, "If [Johnson] felt so strongly that he didn't feel he was ready to practice with us, he should have told me." But such scenarios are unlikely in the NFL, where not playing leads to not getting paid. (Pro football players do not have guaranteed contracts, unlike those in MLB, NBA and NHL.)

But the situation may not be as bleak as it sounds. Goodell could have pointed to the 1995 rules changes that toughened the penalty for helmet-first hits. That, says Kelly, significantly reduced brain and spinal-cord injuries. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello also notes that the league has had a committee of doctors studying concussions since 1994, and that it has become commonplace for team doctors to do testing and to be more conservative about advising players on when they're fit to play. An old-school battler like Waters, who was using smelling salts to revive himself between blows to the head, would probably never be allowed to go back in today.

Of course that doesn't help the men who've already been hurt. "Postconcussion syndrome [can be] permanent," says Carson, "but I've learned how to manage it without medication. You hear all this unfiltered noise, and it intrudes on the brain, so at noisy restaurants I'll ask to be seated at a quiet table. There are good days and days when it's not so good." For his part Johnson seems to have many more of the latter. As he said last week, "I don't want anyone to end up like me."

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