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Former Bears' quarterback Jim McMahon has become one of the most high-profile examples for the dangers of concussions. Recently, Fox Chicago's Lou Canellis spoke with McMahon about the long-term effect his injuries.

Will concussions stop violent sports with a thud?

by Alex Wendland
Feb 14, 2013


Alex Wendland/MEDILL

A study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine shows the number of high school athlete concussions by sport per 10,000 athletic encounters. An athletic encounter is considered one practice or one game/competition.

Last fall, for the first time in his life, Dr. Mark Jenson was worried about the long-term impact of football.

Jenson is a board-certified family physician and specialist in sports medicine. For years, he was the go-to guy for second opinions on the injuries suffered by Green Bay Packers players in the 1990s.

But this season, Jenson’s son Matt suffered his first concussion.

Matt plays tight end for the Butler Bulldogs in Indianapolis. He was a three-sport athlete in high school and had a few minor injuries. But it was the concussion that concerned the elder Jenson.

“He’s probably not going to play pro football, but he’s got 30 years of a career ahead of him,” Jenson said.

Matt sat out a week and passed his test to return to the field, but his father’s views have been permanently changed.

“I didn’t believe it 10 or 15 years ago, but these guys are putting their lives in their hands by playing,” Jenson said. “I used to be, when I saw a big hit ‘ooh, woah, wow!’ Now? I cringe. When a kid gets up, that’s when I cheer. It’s a totally different visceral reaction.”

With a developing consensus on the dangers of football and other violent sports, is there a risk that fans will become turned off by football and other violent sports?

Most experts say no.

Eddie Pietrucha is a managing partner at Triple Crown Productions Inc., a sports marketing firm in Chicago. He says he doesn’t see a fan backlash to violent sports happening soon.

“I would be surprised if it affected fanhood anytime in the near future,” Pietrucha said in an email. “A majority of fans have a way of dehumanizing athletes, in part, because these athletes are extraordinary in their talents and abilities.”

That disassociation is what will probably have to change for fans to vote against high-contact sports with their remote controls and disposable income.

“I think if you are going to see a shift in perspective from fans it's going to take a lot more than what's been presented so far,” Pietrucha said. “The most likely impact will come in the future from parents who are now deciding to steer their children away from the more violent sports.”

While both fans and players’ unions are now advocating for improved sporting equipment and more regulations to keep players relatively safer, experts don’t see the public recoiling from sports such as football or hockey.

“Sports is inherent in our culture and in general people are not looking to abolish sports, only to make them safer for all involved,” said Stephanie Kolakowsky-Hayner in an email. Kolakowsky-Hayner is the director of rehabilitation research at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

Echoing Pietrucha, Kolakowsky-Hayner says she believes it’s a lack of awareness of the devastating effects of concussions, not apathy that stops fans from tuning out.

“Dealing with one’s own mortality is uncomfortable for most people, therefore it’s simply easier to take the ‘It won’t happen to me approach,’” she said.

Still, cautionary tales from current and former players abound.

Former Chicago Bears' quarterback Jim McMahon recently went public in his battle with early onset dementia. The leader of the Bears' lone Super Bowl winning team told Fox 32 that he is already having troubles with his short-term memory.

Earlier this month, Baltimore Ravens' safety Bernard Pollard painted a bleak future for the league his team currently sits atop of.

"Thirty years from now, I don't think it will be in existence," Pollard told "I could be wrong. It's just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going - where [NFL rules makers] want to lighten up, and they're throwing flags and everything else -- there's going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it."

Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of “The Tipping Point,” has gone so far as to call for a ban on college football and question the ethics of those who watch the sport.

Stan Minnickel, 57, of Milwaukee has two adult children and didn’t let his son play football in high school because of the injuries he saw his friends and his father deal with for years after playing. Minnickel says he believes the teamwork and camaraderie of team sports is pivotal to personal growth, but he doesn’t want his son to risk his life to learn it.

“I still enjoy a good football game,” Minnickel said. “I have to say though, I see those guys get hit and they’re lying on the field. Hoping that they get back up is never far from my thoughts during the course of the game.”

Some fans have already decided they won’t take it anymore. Chicagoan Jonathan Menefee, 34, was a self-affirmed football fanatic. He estimates that in 2011 he watched “hundreds of hours of college and pro football.” In 2012, however, he watched less than an hour of football throughout the season.

“I think that the big hits are part of the game that everyone grew to love and popularized the sport,” Menefee said in an email. “I personally get sick to my stomach knowing what those hits result in.”

Menefee says he knows it’s the accumulation of hundreds and thousands of hits that debilitates athletes. It starts in Pop Warner and, for some athletes, doesn’t stop until players are well into their 30s. The knowledge of that accumulation will affect Menefee’s decisions with his own children.

“I have an 18-month-old son and I am going to do my best to steer him away from football and hockey,” he said.

At the other end of the spectrum is Bo Blake, 33, of Evanston. “I’m not even a little turned off,” Blake said. “I love to see big hits in football. These guys know the consequences.”

What does bother Blake? “I’m more turned off by the rules to reduce concussions.”

Some fans wonder if better equipment could shield players from the effects of hard-hitting plays. But even new technology may not be enough to protect players. A 2011 study by the Cleveland Clinic found that new Kevlar football helmets weren’t any better at protecting against concussions than the leather helmets used in the early 1900s.

It wasn’t that the leather helmets offered a lot of protection, but that the new helmets didn’t protect against continued collisions.

“The point of this study is not to advocate for a return to leather helmets but, rather, to test the notion that modern helmets must be more protective than older helmets simply because ‘newer must be better,’” said Dr. Adam Bartsch, director of the Spine Research Laboratory in Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Spine Health, in the study’s press release.

The study found that while new helmet technology drastically reduced devastating head and neck injuries, it wasn’t effective at reducing concussions.

One of the main differences, according to Jenson, is that football players used to be built like rugby players. They were big, hulking guys and the long-term effects of their playing years were that they couldn’t walk when they were 80 years old.

“These are body-modified gladiators now. There’s 80,000 people in the stands on Sundays looking for blood sport.”