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These Super Bowl players are last generation that can claim ignorance about brain injuries

By: Andrew Van Dam The Washington Post
January 30, 2018 Updated: January 30, 2018 at 4:16 am
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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) watches as tight end Rob Gronkowski, left, is assisted from the field after a hit by Jacksonville Jaguars safety Barry Church during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Super Bowl LII on Sunday will be one of the last to feature a generation of players who can reasonably claim they didn't know about the dangers of repeated head trauma when they started playing.

In a three-year playing career, a Junior Pee Wee player today has had access to more coverage of brain damage and football than the Super Bowl's oldest starter, Tom Brady, could have seen, total, between when he was born in 1977 and drafted in 2000.

Between the Junior Pee Wee player and 40-year-old Brady is a generation of football players who have made pivotal life choices about the sport in a decade in which the conversation has changed, with each cohort being better informed than the last.

The youngest starter in this year's game, 23-year-old Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts, would have been exposed to more stories about brain injuries and football during four years of high school alone than were published in the 22 years before Brady decided to go pro.

That makes Roberts part of the first wave of NFL players able to make informed health decisions about whether to play in high school, college and the pro leagues, assuming they were inclined to consult the information.

We're assuming the players who started in the conference championships also will start the Super Bowl. And we're using a count of articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times that mention "brain damage," "brain injury" and "football" as a rough estimate of media coverage.

The accompanying chart shows how many such news stories a person of a given age could have seen, had they been paying attention. We include Junior Pee Wee players because it's a pivotal moment in the decision whether to play football and can be assumed to measure parents' exposure and general awareness as well as a player's reading opportunities.

In the '80s and '90s, myriad stories about brain damage in accidents and among "punch drunk" boxers mentioned football obliquely.

Sunday's Super Bowl starters' average age is nearly 28. On average, they were born in 1990 and were finishing high school as The New York Times published Alan Schwarz's front-page story, "Expert Ties Ex-Player's Suicide to Brain Damage From Football."

The research that would change our understanding of that brain damage, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, wouldn't hit the mainstream until a typical Super Bowl starter already had committed to the sport.

Forensic pathologist Bennett Omalu's initial description of the disease in a football player was published in 2005, but not many prospective football players would have been reading the Neurosurgery journal.

Scattered early stories wouldn't give way to the flood of coverage we see today until the following decade.

Even coverage of concussions, which have been part of the medical lexicon for the sport's entire history, has changed. Concussions are traumatic brain injuries typically caused by a blow to the head. They can be difficult to diagnose, as symptoms vary and may take hours or days to appear. In the beginning, they were reported as just another football injury, despite alarm bells.

When Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, then 38, retired in 1980 after a season in which he suffered five concussions, The Washington Post reported that he downplayed, in a news conference, the role of neurological examinations in his decision:

"Nothing said I should not play," Staubach said, adding, "if that's the only reason, I wouldn't retire because of it. Injuries are part of football."

But his wife, former nurse Marianne Staubach, told The Post, "I'm afraid if he had decided to play another season and he went down with a head injury, I probably would just come unglued right in my seat for fear of the worst."

For the next 20 years, views such as Marianne Staubach's would be infrequent in concussion stories, which focused on players' short-term availability on the field, not their long-term health. That wouldn't change until CTE research hit the mainstream, which was after most Super Bowl starters had chosen to pursue college careers.

We're in the first stages of a generational shift. The younger players in Super Bowl LII could have at least been aware of something called "chronic traumatic encephalopathy" and that it's tied to football and other contact sports.

Each subsequent class of players has been exposed to more and better coverage. In the decade since CTE first made headlines, a growing body of research and reporting has proved its deeper ties with brain trauma and football. The depth and breadth of the risks is becoming clearer. Regardless of what steps youth football organizations and the NFL take, the conversation around the sport has gained another dimension.

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