Harry Carson said Monday that he has petitioned both the Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control to issue a formal warning that “contact sports can be hazardous to your young person’s health.”
“I think when you’re talking about a young person, there are so many parents who don’t have a true understanding,” the Pro Football Hall of Famer said at an information session for journalists at NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan.
Carson, 62, a Giants linebacker from 1976-88, was an early spokesman for former players suffering from brain injuries and their aftermath. He has become an advocate for families affected by them.
Three such families spoke at Monday’s event, as did three medical experts.
After the program, Carson said he does not believe that football and other contact sports should be banned, but that parents and athletes should go in with their eyes open.
“I don’t want to tell people what to do,” he said. “If they want to let their kids play, then God bless them. But if they know ahead of time what the ramifications could be, that’s the most important thing.
“This is a free country. If people want to smoke, they smoke, and if they get lung cancer, they get lung cancer. But I think parents should be fully informed as to what they’re signing their kids up for, and if they want to sign their kids up, then God bless them.”
Carson has nothing against efforts to make contact sports safer through rules, techniques or equipment. “But there is only so much you can do to make the game safer,” he said.
One common misconception that Carson said frustrates him is the notion that improvements in football helmets make a big difference. Proper helmets do a good job preventing skull fractures; they are less useful for preventing brain injuries.
“You’re essentially putting a helmet on top of a helmet,” said Steven Galetta, chair of neurology at NYU Langone, who called the skull the most effective brain helmet yet developed.
Galetta, Laura Balcer, co-director of NYU Langone’s Concussion Center, and Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at Penn, cautioned against jumping to conclusions, whether it be that repeated blows to the head were the cause of Muhammad Ali’s neurological problems or where the nascent study of CTE in former players will lead.
Carson said he recognized early in his career that something was amiss — feelings that led to depression and suicidal thoughts. Teammates told him he had the right initials, HC, because “some days you’re hot and some days you’re cold.”
Even with awareness and rules changes in recent years, such effects remain a reality.
“Football obviously is an intrinsically risky sport, and I don’t think you’re going to eliminate that risk in its entirety,” Galetta said. “Rules changes and penalizing targeting of the head will be important to lessen the risk, but it’s not going to eliminate the risk.”