Sports Columnist: 'I Wonder in 50 Years, Will We Have Football?'

By Susan Jones | November 30, 2015 | 11:00am EST
New York Jets' Chris Ivory (33) is tackled by Miami Dolphins' Jamar Taylor (22) and Michael Thomas (31) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - "I wonder in 50 years, will we have football?" USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan mused on Sunday. "We're going to have it for the next 10, 15, 20, 30, probably. But 50 years? I don't know," she told ABC's "This Week" with Martha Raddatz.

The conversation was spurred by news that the late Hall-of-Famer Frank Gifford, who played football in the 1950s and early 60s, had traumatic brain injury that was diagnosed only after his death in August.

Although he died at age 84 of natural causes -- following a long and successful sportscasting career -- Gifford has now become the face of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an ailment linked to concussions.

In a statement released through NBC News last Wednesday, Gifford's family said he had "experienced firsthand" symptoms associated with CTE, but they did not say what those symptoms were.

On Sunday, Brennan told ABC's "This Week" that the disclosure about Gifford's health will raise awareness about CTE in the same way that Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson raised awareness about HIV/AIDS; Betty Ford, about addiction; and Michael J. Foxx, about Parkinson's Disease.

Raddatz asked Brennen if Gifford's CTE diagnosis will change anything for the National Football League:

"It's not just football, though the NFL and football...is a huge piece of it," Brennan said. She said girl's and women's soccer is also "a huge issue."

"See, it's a big issue with our youth sports," Brennan said. "I wonder in 50 years, will we have football? We're going to have it for the next 10, 15, 20, 30, probably. But 50 years? I don't know."

Brennan wondered about "suburban kids." "Will they choose football or will they go to other sports because moms and dads will say that we're worried about this for our kids?"

Appearing with Brennan was Chris Nowinski, executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation:

Raddatz asked him, "Do you think we should have football in 50 years?"

"I don't think it should be for children," Nowinski replied. "There's only so much we can do to help kids in a sport like football, when you're hitting them so much and they're too young to even understand they have a concussion. No, I mean -- and concussion isn't really the issue. It's the hundreds of hits to the head is terrible for any childhood brain."

The news about Gifford's CTE probably won't change things for the NFL, Nowinski said. "But the big conversation we need to have is if...football is causing this disease, which it is, and it's a dose response relationship, the longer you play, the more times you're hit in the head, the younger you start, we really have to look at youth football.

"And the problem is, while the NFL is making some moves to their game, they can't make the youth game safe. And yet they're marketing it to so many children. They're spending tens of millions of dollars to get our kids to play when we really should be getting our kids to get out of it."

For Nowinski, who played football in high school and college, the issue is personal: He said "absolutely," he has Post-Concussion Syndrome, and "I likely have CTE."

He expressed the hope that researchers can find a way to diagnose CTE in living people and treat it, "because there's a lot of guys like me, that are dealing with these issues."

The body of research is growing:

Last year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the U.S. Defense Department announced a $30-million joint initiative to produce "the most comprehensive study of concussion and head impact exposure ever conducted."

The plan is to study and monitor around 37,000 male and female NCAA student-athletes and military cadets over a period of years, even decades, to determine the frequency, severity and cumulative effects of head injuries in their respective activities.

A study published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in September 2012 found that NFL players may be at a higher risk of death from Alzheimer’s and other impairments of the brain and nervous system than the general U.S. population.

"These results are consistent with recent studies by other research institutions that suggest an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among football players," NIOSH reported.

The paper, “Neurodegenerative causes of death among retired National Football League players,” published in the Sept. 5, 2012 issue of the journal Neurology, looked at 3,439 NFL players who played at least five seasons between 1959-1988.

The study relied on death certificate information for causes of death; at the time of analysis only 10 percent of the participants had died. Of the 334 players who had died, Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s Disease were listed for 17 of them.

"While findings do not establish a direct cause-effect relationship between football-related concussions and death from these neurodegenerative disorders, the findings do support current research that professional football players are at increased risk of death from these particular disorders," NIOSH said.

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