Frontline and brain research show link between football and brain injury

Trent Murphy breaks through a tough offensive line. (Courtesy of Cynthia Yock)

Trent Murphy breaks through a tough offensive line. (Courtesy of Cynthia Yock)

College football is big business. The dirty little secret that’s not a secret anymore is the link between repetitive concussions sustained during football games and the incidence of brain damage to the players. The TV show Frontline documented the brain research being conducted to prove this link and the NFL’s denial that there is one. And what are the student health implications for young adults playing football? If you are looking for good research paper topics for a course in sports medicine, read on for more details on the risks from a football injury.

Frontline documentary “League of Denial—The NFL’s Concussion Crisis”

The PBS show Frontline recently chronicled NFL commissioners Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell’s continued denial of any link between concussions in football games and brain injury. The show highlighted players Mike Webster, Terry Long and Junior Seau and documented the research of neurosurgeons Bennet Omalu and Ann McKee who examined numerous brains of deceased ex-football players who had displayed memory loss, confusion, fits of rage and cognitive impairment. They found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, in nearly all the brain samples.

The documentary implied that the NFL’s immense power, money and lawyers squashed and delayed the issue for years for fear that it would affect the profitable powerhouse that is professional football, which earned $8 billion in 2009. That year, Congress finally investigated the issue and likened the NFL to Big Tobacco, which for years had refused to acknowledge the link between cigarettes and cancer.

Due to pressure, the NFL adopted a new policy for concussions, added neurosurgeons to its 15-year-old MTBI (mild traumatic brain injury) Committee and donated money to facilities studying brain damage. In 2013 a lawsuit by 4500 retired players resulted in a $765 million payout by the NFL but without any admission of liability that the players’ brain injuries were caused by football. Critics say the NFL is keeping the research “inconclusive” as long as it can.

Some misconceptions about sports safety

Your brain sits in gelatin inside your skull. A concussion is caused when a blow to the head or neck make the brain slide forcefully against the skull. Dennis Molfese, director of the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences committee that investigates sports-related concussions in youth aged 15 to 21. In “UNL’s Molfese among national panel studying youth sports concussions,” posted October 30, 2013, he reported some sobering findings about concussions in sports:

• helmets protect against skull fractures, not against the whiplash effect that causes a concussion

• much remains unknown about concussions, their diagnosis and treatment

• rest is a commonly prescribed treatment after concussions but no research indicates how long a student athlete should stay off the field or out of the classroom

Consequences of concussions reach the classroom

Concussions sustained by teens and young adults during sports affect class performance. “Academic activities that require concentration—studying intensely for an exam, for example—can cause a student’s concussion symptoms to reappear or worsen,” physical therapist Wendy G. Novick explained in “Health wise” by Michael E. Bratsis in the Science Teacher, April 2013. Students often miss class work, homework and study time, said Novick.

The consequences of concussions during sports raise a lot of issues for debate. Here are some of the issues, which may make good research paper topics:

• physiological effects of concussions on the brain

• CTE among retired professional athletes

• how medical findings on concussions affect the business of sports

• the role of safety precautions in sports

What is the NCAA’s policy on concussions?

The NCAA’s official policy on concussions states that each school is responsible for the safety of its athletes, but that the NCAA establishes guidelines to help schools make decisions. The opinion of blogger Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for the League of Fans, is evident in the title of his post: “NCAA’s Approach to Concussions Is Barbaric,” August 14, 2013, for the Huffington Post. Reed wrote, “Despite all the research during the past decade on brain damage from concussions in sports—particularly in football—the NCAA does not yet have a comprehensive policy on the issue.” Slate blogger Eric Goldwein speculated that the ambiguity in the NCAA’s concussion protocol is deliberate so the organization remains legally blameless.

Some college students are suing the NCAA, saying it failed to educate them about the risks of concussions and did not take enough precautions to prevent, diagnose and treat brain injury. Many colleges have instituted their own concussion policies. Check with your coach and your doctor on the best safety precautions for playing contact sports.

Would the risk of concussions and brain damage stop you from playing contact sports? 

Check out’s Health and Medicine page for more information on the physiological effects of concussions.

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