More dramatic than a study released Friday stressing that no football helmet can prevent concussions is news that the NFL will hang posters in all 32 team locker rooms warning players about the risks of head trauma.
"This is a huge step in changing the culture," concussion-awareness advocate Chris Nowinski said. "It shows there are no longer two sides of this argument; it's one coherent message now . . . Research has shown that football, in its modern form, is dangerous and damaging to the brain for those who have played a long time."
The NFL poster project, first reported in yesterday's New York Times, cautions players that head trauma "can change your life and your family's life forever," and that "repetitive brain injury, when not treated promptly and properly, may cause permanent damage to your brain." With such language, the league is reversing prior declarations that mostly refuted a direct connection between concussions and permanent harm.
The posters are the most blunt in a series of alarms sounded by medical experts, echoed by congressional panels and lately acknowledged by the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell last season installed new precautions, including a ban of players re-entering a game after suffering a concussion.
Last month, players were further jolted by pathology findings that Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, who died at 26 when he fell from a moving pickup truck last December, was afflicted with the chronic brain disease CTE, caused by repeated blows to the head.
Researchers have concluded that long-term damage could be the result of accumulated hits that do not rise to the level of a concussion, and that younger players are particularly susceptible to snowballing harm.
The building evidence of head trauma on all levels in football has moved Nowinski, a former Harvard football lineman and pro wrestler who now serves as president of the Sports Legacy Institute, to campaign for more research and awareness.
In testimony before Congress, Nowinski's group recently issued a 10-point response plan - starting with a reduction of hitting in practice and mandatory education for coaches, trainers, players and parents. "The message to coaches is you can cut down every athlete's head trauma by 50 percent if we reinvent practice," Nowinski said in a telephone interview.
He proposed more research in concussion diagnosis, better management of concussions, and re-evaluations of protective equipment, tackling and blocking techniques, rules and rule enforcement, and football culture.
NFL Players Association medical director Thom Mayer already has been agitating for an overhaul in practice routines that would curtail the amount of player-on-player hits. The league's competition committee has said it will study the matter.
"The message is filtering down to to these young athletes who essentially have no medical resources available," Nowinski said, "and part of this is happening because the NFL finally is acknowledging its responsibility to the game, from top to bottom.
"The game has to change," Nowinski said. "We can't systematically and voluntarily destroy the brains of young men in this country. The choice is to change significantly, or the message could become: Kids shouldn't play. We have to find a way to make it safer."