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'Get your head in the game,' deal with dire consequences

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"I HAVE a three-year-old grandson... (and) I’ve told his mom, my daughter, that he’s not going to play football."

These are pretty powerful words, considering that they were spoken by Harry Carson, a former NFL star who played 13 years as the New York Giants' middle linebacker and is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Football was Carson's profession and his passion, and while he still deeply loves the game, he is one of many ex-players who have become vocal about the National Football League's handling of concussion-related injuries in former and current players.

And the danger of long-term brain damage caused by the collisions that are a routine part of football is sufficiently severe to prompt Carson to declare he doesn't want his grandson to follow in his cleat-clad footsteps.

"Knowing what I know now, I do not want him to play," Carson said a few weeks ago in an interview during PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' summer press tour in Los Angeles.

"Parents need to be vigilant as to what they allow their children to do. When you sign that consent form, you really need to understand exactly what you're doing. As for me and my family, I don't want my grandson to play."

Carson figures prominently in the two-part Frontline documentary League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis, which premieres tonight at 8 on PBS. The film, based on the book League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for the Truth by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, examines how the NFL attempted for many years to refute mounting scientific evidence that the violent physical contact at the heart of the sport are linked to numerous post-career ailments, including early-onset dementia and other chronic brain diseases.

It's essentially an investigation that asks, pointedly, what the NFL knew and when it knew it, and whether the league's aggressive effort to maintain an entertaining and therefore profitable level of violence led to a massive coverup that continues to put players' lives at risk.

Interestingly, when Carson and the film's producers met with the media in L.A. in August, League of Denial was presented as a joint effort by PBS/Frontline and ESPN's Outside the Lines. But a couple of weeks later, ESPN -- which has a lucrative broadcast-deal partnership with the NFL -- pulled out of the project, citing a lack of editorial control over the final documentary product.

ESPN's name and logos were removed from the film and credits.

There has been much discussion during the past couple of decades about football equipment -- helmets in particular -- and the amount of protection it provides to players. League of Denial's writer/director, Michael Kirk, said the blunt-force collisions that are a fundamental part of football create so much force that it really doesn't matter how good the latest protective gear might be.

"It's not an equipment problem," Kirk explained. "Most of our research indicates, I think I can say definitively, that it's really not an equipment problem. The helmet is designed to protect you from a skull fracture, and it probably does. But what it really does, and Harry can speak to this definitively, is it gives you a weapon on the top of your head to tackle harder, hit harder.

"The scientists and the doctors we talked to in the film, who explain in detail how the brain works inside -- basically, the fluid in your skull and the brain bouncing around when somebody like (Carson) hits you with his elbow, and the rotational forces. One scientist in the film says getting hit like that across the line is a 20-G force on your head."

Carson added that it's the enormous popularity of football, from the NFL right down to the grassroots level, that makes the concussion issue such a huge concern.

"While (the film) relates to the NFL, it could be football on any level," he said. "It could be high school football. It could be college football. It could be Pop Warner football. You know, concussions do not discriminate by age or race or anything. If you put yourself out there, you might wind up dealing with something that will follow you for the rest of your life."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 8, 2013 D3

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