Unless you have a Buffalo Bills sticker on your car or participate in some unusually obsessive fantasy football league, you probably don’t know who A.J. Tarpley is.
He’s a 23-year-old outside linebacker, an NFL rookie last year from Stanford. He had interceptions in his last two games. Coaches were high on him.
Now, Tarpley is another young football player who decided to give up the game rather than risk long-term brain injury from concussion. He wrote about his decision this morning in a thoughtful online column for Sports Illustrated.
Among his paragraphs to remember: “No educated person seems to be denying the relationship between brain injuries and football, yet there are no definitive measures. We still can’t answer the question of how much is too much.”
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Those answers are coming more quickly now. This morning, the American Academy of Neurology revealed that more than 40 percent of retired NFL players had signs of traumatic brain injury based on sensitive MRI scans called diffusion tensor imaging, according to a study released today that will be presented at the AAN’s annual meeting next week.
The NFL is in the early stages of accepting this reality. A top league official acknowledged the link between football and brain disease last month, but others like Dallas owner Jerry Jones are opting for the climate denier approach. “Where’s the proof?” they ask. “We need a bigger sample size,” they say.
That’s not an unfamiliar approach to bad news. But in clinging to its short-term dollars, the league continues to risk its longer-term health.
No, this isn’t an imminent threat. A vast majority of NFL players will continue to take a chance on concussions rather than use their Stanford education to carve out a different life, like Tarpley. NFL officials and owners will continue to call for more research for as long as they can stall significant change. Football fans – including me, by the way – will continue to watch. We’ll try to ignore what those big hits mean.
That’s why it’s important to strengthen protections for young football players. Already, North Carolina has stronger youth concussion laws than most states. We require that medical clearance after an injury be obtained by a medical professional with expertise in concussions. We require venue-specific emergency action plans at sports events.
But N.C. lawmakers should expand those requirements to recreational sports leagues, including soccer. That almost happened in 2011 when the current youth concussion law was crafted. It’s time.
It also will be time for something else, eventually: School districts will have to decide if they really want to sanction a middle-school and high school activity that can lead to long-term damage.
Yes, that seems inconceivable right now. But today, another young player walked away from the sport. Others will follow as the research brings us a more precise link to danger. Soon, most every head injury, every bell that’s rung during a game, every big hit that we used to celebrate, will bring about a different kind of reaction. We’re quietly crossing a threshold. Will the NFL decide to meet us on the other side?
Peter St. Onge