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11/12/2015

Do we need more paternalism in the NFL to protect players from themselves?

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

This week the St. Louis Rams, a National Football League (NFL) team posted a picture on Twitter of player Wes Welker signing papers, making his departure from the Denver Broncos and his membership in the Rams organization official. Fans, coaches, players, sports commentators and writers typically weigh in on situations like Welker’s by commenting on how players who join new teams will impact their team and other teams in the division, or how players will change the dynamics of the entire NFL league. This time, however, when the Rams posted a picture of Welker thoughts turned to his at least six confirmed concussions (it is suspected that he has suffered at least ten concussions), three of which he received during a nine-month span in the NFL. Many articles expressed worry for Welker’s health. One writer wrote that Welker “might very well be killing himself by signing a one-year contract with the St. Louis Rams.” The same writer calls for his agent, family, friends, and former teammates to save Welker from himself and to “open his eyes.” In another article, a writer stated that “it’s a strange feeling, to hope that Wes Welker—a talented WR [wide receiver] and by all accounts a decent guy—never plays football again.”

The concern for Welker is in response to the knowledge that the NFL has acquired in the past decade or so about the dangers of repeated head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain disorder that can lead to depression and suicide as was the case with well-known NFL player Junior Seau. The autopsies of many deceased players have revealed that they suffered from CTE. Many retired players have reported symptoms associated with CTE such as dementia and unprovoked aggression. CTE can only be diagnosed once a person has died and his or her) brain is examined during an autopsy, making the relationship between head trauma experienced by NFL players and CTE even more troubling.

In response to increased head trauma, the NFL has set aside more money to study head trauma and has changed some of the rules to make the game safer. But after players like Welker who have had multiple concussions continue to play the game we should question whether the NFL should do more to protect its players. We have to question whether given the information that the NFL now knows about head trauma, does the NFL have a duty to its players to tell them when they have had enough of professional football?

The NFL’s duty to its players could take the form of a concussion policy—the NFL could ban players from playing football after they have had a certain number of concussions. One problem with this is that not all head trauma results in concussions. Players can suffer head trauma that could lead to CTE and no one, perhaps not even the player himself would know. Therefore, barring athletes from the game based on number of concussions would be ineffective and leave a lot of players with head trauma still out on the field.

Another problem with creating a policy that bars players from the NFL after multiple concussions is player autonomy. The presence of danger is not enough justification to ban someone from a career that he loves. If Welker himself is willing to take on the risks that are associated with playing football, assuming he knows the risks, perhaps we ought to let him. If Welker does not know the risks of playing football, then the league must to do a better job of letting its players know the dangers of their occupation. When people are hired for jobs such as working in certain kinds of factories, which pose a higher than normal risk to their health than other jobs, they are informed of the risks of the jobs through documents, seminars, and/or training. Maybe the NFL needs to do a better job of educating players on what they are trading for money, fame, and the love of the game.

Welker has said that he is “not worried about it” in response to getting back on the field. So it is possible that 1) he knows the risks associated with football and is willing to play despite those risks; or 2) he is not informed of the dangers of repeated head trauma. But he has also said that “obviously I’m not going to try and look for contact and everything like that, but I’m not thinking about it either.” So it seems that he knows that excessive contact is bad in some way but may be ignoring or downplaying the true effects of repeated head trauma. Also, Welker is a long time football player so I’m sure he is aware that contact is inevitable. Whether players are looking for contact does not matter because there is an opponent who is looking to make contact for the sake of winning.

What is particularly cringe-worthy about what Welker’s re-admittance to the NFL represents is the apparent attitude of NFL teams to care more about money than their players’ health. I wonder if anyone at the St. Louis Rams organization second-guessed signing Welker. I also wonder if there were any other teams that passed on Welker because of his concussions. It’s probably more likely that other teams passed on Welker for reasons unrelated to his health and that if anyone at the Rams organization thought twice about signing Welker, what they believe he can bring to their team outweighed concern for his health.

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