Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

18 Jan 2007

Waters' Suicide Linked to Concussions

It's very preliminary, but former Eagles safety Andre Waters' suicide in November may be another tragic data point in the story of the NFL and concussions. Apparently the 44-year-old Waters had a brain which had degenerated to resemble that of an 80-year-old man in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Thanks to reader Mike Juntunen for pointing out this story.

Posted by: Tim Gerheim on 18 Jan 2007

44 comments, Last at 19 Jan 2007, 10:14pm by coyotl666


by ycl (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 9:24pm

Great read -- a serious issue for fans to consider.

And it does appear that the NFL is doing the "Tobacco Company 2-Step" here. Though medical consensus will not be reached for many years, there can't be any real doubt that playing this incredibly violent game and sustaining repeated concussions will, at least sometimes, result in debilitating effects down the road.

But what's the solution -- Better helmets? A strict, "you get a concussion and you don't play for 2 months" rule?

by Tighthead (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 9:32pm

jcl - most unions would be doing a little more to protect their members as well.

by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 9:42pm

"But what’s the solution — Better helmets? A strict, “you get a concussion and you don’t play for 2 months� rule?"

There are better helmets. Most of the players just have Ben Roethlisburger syndrome, and refuse to wear them, instead using the lighter, airier, less safe helmets.

Brady and Manning both use the anti-concussion ones, so the argument that they slightly restrict perifreal vision is crap, IMO.

by Truman (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 9:54pm

Rugby players face a mandatory 3 week stand down period worldwide.
Hasn't this been discussed on FO earlier this season?

by RCH (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 10:00pm

Because concussions can be so difficult to diagnose I don't think that just a policy of limiting play after the fact is sufficient. Especially since once it is in place players will only tend to try to hide the injury.

One of the issues with the current helmets is the feeling of invincibility that they give the wearer. Once you have one of those on you really feel like you can lead with your head with impunity. The reason that rugby players have fewer devestating injuries is because they have less equipment.

by Jesse (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 10:04pm

I've had a few non sports-related concussions in the last few years, and I like the Colts this week, so obviously they do seriously affect the brain.

Really, though, people don't take them anywhere near seriously enough. I don't know how football concussions compare to other ones, but I could barely remember what year it was for a few days, and to send guys out a few plays, or even a week later is really risky.

by Truman (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 10:19pm

That and because the players are smaller and slower (Not as many high-impact collisions; it's a clean sport).

Also due to the nature of the game, it's more endurance based, without the short intense plays of football.

One approach administrators in rugby have taken is to de-power the game and reduce injuries through rule changes - players must hit and wrap at the tackle, football style shoulder charges are penalizable offenses
- scrums are now set closer and must be called by the referee

by Otis Taylor \\\'89 (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 10:35pm

Concussions and their aftereffects will continue to be the game's dirty little secret until they outlaw hard plastic covering on the helmet and shoulder pads. Hard plastic may have been OK when players averaged 180-190 lbs, but when 280 lb men who can run 4.4 40's are involved, hard plastic turns into weapons.

by coyotl666 (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 11:17pm

i've had three concussions in the past four months. each time it's taken less to concuss me. the mri's show little other than whether there's an haematoma and often not even if there's water there. the only real tests for post-concussive syndrome seem to be asking the sufferer. but the lack of mental clarity, the dizziness, instability and fucked vision is very real. my last concussion happened when i misjudged a wall - y'know, a big unmoving thing, and hit it relatively lightly. each time the brain moves more easily around the head. maybe time helps, but certainly roethlisberger and others come back too soon. another little noticed thing is that only the skill players' concussions get alot of press. webster aside, there's got to be many more unheralded cases of dudes who didn't get "jacked up"

cheers, mark

by Basilicus (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 11:47pm

Mark, or coyotl666,

I'm sure you've been told this by a lot of different people by now, but take care of yourself, man. Good luck in putting an end to that streak of bad luck you're in.

I think the players' union and the league need to get together in order to discuss rule changes and an aggressive education policy to the real dangers players put themselves in when coming back from concussion too soon. Some won't worry about it anyway, but some will and at least they'll all be able to make their decision on how soon to return after a concussion an informed one.

by Crushinator (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 11:53pm

The biggest piece of protection players have against concussions outside of helmets are their mouth pieces. Mouth pieces aren't designed to protect the teeth - they absorb shock.

Players, particularly QBs, seem to have a bad habit of not using them. The QBs don't because it would be a give away when the ball was going to be snapped and it's hard to understand people with a mouthpiece.

by Jim A (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 12:32am

This story sounds very similar to those written about the deaths of Terry Long and Mike Webster a couple years ago. We seem to have the same physicians on each side the argument as before, primarily Pellman and Lovell of the NFL vs. Omalu and Bailes, among others.

ESPN Mag did a long article on the controversy a couple months ago (linked). I find it a bit troubling that the NFL has been so uncooperative with independent researchers studying the effects of concussions, especially considering the NFL's obvious conflict of interest. It seems to me the NFLPA needs to take a more active role on behalf of its members.

by Frankly Bored (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 12:51am


I just gotta ask and feel free to ignore this question: How do you get 3 concussions in 4 months?

by Mike J (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 1:03am

I just emailed this to Aaron, but I figured I'd post it here too since retyping it again would just be, well, retyping it again :)

I think that
the concussions issue in the NFL is alot more like the pitching abuse issue
in baseball (as opposed to, say, the 370 carries thing, as valuable as that
is .. and you know, I bet they are also related).

I really think the greatest thing BP has done for baseball has nothing to do
with better winning and losing, but better health, and I'd love to see more
from FO on this.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 1:03am

Well, shortly after a few good laughs at Ron Mexico's expense, I get this dose of grim reality. Ah crap, now I remember why the missus won't let the boys play football.

The Mike Webster series was incredibly riveting--evidence that the head-slap (and 'roids too, IIRC) was pure evil.

But the safety position must be one of the most concussion-prone, no? They're faster than average and get a running start to halt run plays. (Bob Sanders, I'm lookling in your direction. Keep your head up buddy and watch it.) I think of guys like Archuleta, who were like RPGs in college and their first couple years, then a few concussions later and they head the "where are they now?" columns. And that's if they're lucky enough to still be playing (and collecting Dan Snyder's filthy lucre even when not playing)!

Merril Hoge is looking smarter and smarter.

Anybody think my 6 year-old, who recently wrote "my hands are for football" in a little kindergarten "essay" would like to change that to "my hands are for piano?" If he doesn't, I suspect I wil get yelled at.

RIP Andre.

by Mike J (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 1:04am

Wow, the format of pasting that sucks.

I also noticed there's 3 other guys posting here as Mike, so I've started using my initial, now when I say stupid things about Michigan you guys will know its me!

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 1:05am

MikeJ, I am missing something. To me, BP = batting practice. How does that correlate with pitcing abuse?

Like I said, clearly something is not connecting--maybe it's the 2 concussions I've had....

by Yaguar (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 1:11am

Baseball Prospectus.

Yeah, it's the concussions.

by Mike J (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 1:12am

Whoops, I should be more clear.

FO's sister site, Baseball Prospectus (the ones who host chats for FO and help them get the book published every year) were the leaders in explaining, quantifying and consequently creating pressure in MLB to cut down on overwork of pitchers, which while it has decreased is still an imperfect science that leads to a profound number of pitcher injuries per season.

by Francisco (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 1:15am

Baseball Prospectus=BP. That's the baseball version of FO. And Bobman, I feel your pain, both as a deluded and frazzled colts fan this week, and a father who doesn't know if his son should play football in light of all the medical evidence against it.

by Mike J (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 1:34am

In a related story that I hope you guys laugh at, I emailed this in because my dad and I heard NPR do a piece on it (thats right, NPR!)

My dad, a casual Lions fan at best (watches 3-4 games a year, tops), pauses, then says.

"Hey, that explains why Phil Sims and Troy Aikman are such horrible announcers, isn't that why they retired?"

by oldnumberseven (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 2:25am

I wonder what can be done about this sort of thing. On the one hand you have the NFL saying they take it serious, and the NFLPA saying the same, but players get concussed all the time, and still play. Different sport, but look at Eric Lindros in the NHL. Many concussions, and still playing. Maybe it is like smoking, you figure you will be dead by the time all the effects can catch up to you.

by MFurtek (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 3:28am

ESPN had a nice hit piece tonight on another former player... Eric Deitrich (?) or something similar. Played on the Lions from 1980-1986. He even went so far as to say he wouldn't want his son taking that punishment.

There was a former Chicago team trainer saying they studied a significant amount of players and show that those with multiple concusions have a higher rate of depression... 2-3x more than the average.

I don't know if this means the average male is 5% and the multiple concussed is 10-15%... or if its something like 1% going to 2-3%.

by James, London (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 7:51am

I've posted on this at length many times, the solution is simple.

Any player with a concussion is banned from playing and taking any contact in practice for 21 days. No exceptions.

by coyotl666 (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 9:09am

frankly bored -13

there's probably many ways, including playing football, all of which involve moving the brain around within the skull. the thing is, and this is why i brought my experience into it, that unless given time to set the brain remains loose and easier to knock about. some doctors say it never does regain stability, while others assume that once the primary symptoms - headaches, nauseau are the longest lasting - go away stability has returned. i only know that i'm finally getting it together, even though i was symptom free between the first two.

to satisfy your curiosity, though: the first was the result of being jumped and having my head kicked in by the likely lads; the second, i went off me bike (wearing a helmet for what that's worth); and the third, i just couldn't see that wall.

cheers, mark

by joel in providence (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 10:40am

good point. i love when people question american football's toughness "because they were those huge helmets and all those pads." Yeah, but the helmets and facemasks make the game more violent not less. the oldtimer with the leather caps could never drop his shoulders and use his skull like a missile.

by joel in providence (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 10:49am

btw, anybody else read last week's essay by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker? (He name-checked Football Outsiders, btw.) In it, he argues that playing in the modern NFL has essentially become a joyless career pursuit -- that some players make fantastic livings while most have little job security and barely scrape by. And that the locker room atmosphere today is much more dour than it was in the heydays of the 70s. Stories like this make me think he has a point.

by Adam B. (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 11:33am

The answer? Some kind of mandatory rest period, a cap on concussions per year/career for players, but also financial protection for the players so there's no incentive for them to hide concussions or their effects.

by DGL (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 11:54am

#14: Actually, I'd say that the issue of concussions in football is considerably worse than the pitching abuse issue in baseball. A pitcher who overstresses his arm when fatigued can blow out a rotator cuff, need Tommy John surgery, have his career ruined, and suffer long-term disability which will affect his ability to function normally after retiring from baseball.

A football player who suffers too many concussions can die.

by MCS (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 12:36pm

Several of the posters have touched upon the ideas I wish to add. But I'm gonna post anyway.

What is the root cause for the concussions? That is the question we need to address.

In my opinion, the root cause is that the NFL players are abnormally large human beings and contact each other at unbelievable speeds. Because of the protective equipment they wear, they lead with their heads.

The Corrective Actions must be radical and aggressive.
1. Institute tackling rules and severely penalize all contact with the head.
-By severely, I mean punish the player financially (e.g. 1 games pay). If it hits 'em in the pocketbook, they'll think twice.
2. In the case of a diagnosed concussion, the player is to miss 4 weeks practice and games or whatever time some medical expert says is needed.
-I have no idea if 4 weeks is long enough or too long. After X concussions, mandatory retirement.
3. Stricter steroid/supplement control.
4. Perhaps weight training limits.
-Three and four are ideas to reduce the size of the NFL players. They're just too fast and too powerful.
5. Reduce the amount of safety equipment. I have no idea if this will get players to be more careful or if it will simply cause more severe injuries.

Like I said, it's time to think radically to get this under control. Concussions are just an example of health issues experienced by athletes later in life. Increased cases of obesity, heart disease, etc have also been mentioned due to the large size of some of the linemen.

by DWL (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 1:23pm

Does the data support the supposition that concussions in football are mostly caused by leading w/ the head, and if so, is it the hitter or hittee that is getting concussed?

Most concussions that I recall seeing seem to involve a head getting struck by some other player's body part (e.g. a defender getting dinged in the head by the ball carrier's knee/thigh or by a fellow defensemen's body part as he comes in to assist on the tackle), also Trent Green's concussion was not the result of leading w/ a helmet was it?

Concussions come in many forms due to the violent nature of the sport in general.

by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 1:45pm

"In it, he argues that playing in the modern NFL has essentially become a joyless career pursuit — that some players make fantastic livings while most have little job security and barely scrape by."

I'm sorry, $285K is the rookie minimum, and $360K is the one year minimum.

Nobody making $285K a year "barely scrapes by". You can work for 2 years, and make more than most people make in 15 years.

by joel in providence (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 1:53pm

rich: i hear you. gopnik makes the argument mainly by comparing Roy Blount Jr.'s book about a season with the 1975 (i think that was the year) Steelers vs. the recent book about the Ravens by John Feinstein. i recommend checking the article out.

by joel in providence (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 2:03pm

i like a lot of what you're saying. but what you're proposing sounds too much like rugby: the best way to get lighter, smaller players would be to limit substitutions and drastically shorten the play clock. it might be interesting to think about, but american football basically chose 75 years ago to move away from that style of game. personally, i'd like to see rules requiring more 2-way players and less specialization, but it's not likely to happen.

by Zac (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 2:33pm

As the article mentions, this study was brought about by Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player turned professional wrestler, who had to retire from wrestling due to concussions he had suffered.

He was an awesome heel (bad guy) in the WWE.

by Frankly Bored (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 2:46pm

Coyotl666, sorry for what your going through. I think it is interesting that some doctors believe that the concussion never really goes away. But really the term "concussion" is a clinical rather than pathologic diagnosis, therefore if the clinical signs of a concussion are gone, then by definition the patient is over the concussion. But if they mean there is ongoing pathology (i.e. small amount of inflammation) that we are not detecting with our clincical tests, then I agree with them. And if those inflammatory mediators are still in the brain (a pro-inflammatory environment) the next time this a patient hits there head, then by all means I can see how concussions can be self perpetuating.

by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 2:53pm

#22: funny you should mention him. He's probably another one of those guys who's playing when he shouldn't because we can't yet point to specific symptoms and tell him look, you can't play any more ... like your brother. Brett's one of a number of ex-NHL players who had to retire due to post-concussion syndrome. Pat LaFontaine might be the most famous player who retired for that reason.

You're right, though. I doubt there's a category of people less likely to be concerned with the future than male professional athletes. I'm pretty sure I didn't worry about physical consequences when I was a young adult, and I'm nowhere near a pro-caliber athlete. Heck, even LaFontaine tried to keep playing well after doctors advised him against it.

This should really have been the reason for Bryant Gumbel to yank Upshaw's chain. This may not be a problem with a simple solution, but it sure seems like it's having a significant impact on a number of current and former players, and it's hard to see why the NFLPA wouldn't want to address it.

by Opiwan (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 3:10pm

I don't think even the NFL itself is the biggest issue. I only played high school ball as an OT/DT two-way player, and even I got multiple concussions from the experience. I would assume that the average NFL player has had at least two concussions by the time they make the league, probably more. If you want to eliminate as many concussions as possible, it's necessary to do it on EVERY LEVEL, especially since concussions are a cumulative effect (see Lindros, Eric and Primeau, Keith in the NHL for glaringly obvious cases). Anti-concussion helmets should be mandatory from freshman/JV football and up (which would also cut down on resistance to them since they'd become standard practice during formative years), and the waiting period is absolutely necessary, again at all levels. The team doctor at my high school wouldn't allow me back on even the practice field for two weeks after my second concussion...

by Independent George (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 4:08pm

#33 - I read that article, and I think it was completely bonkers. My two main issues were: (1) he seems to have a completely romanticized view of the 'old days' of the NFL, when players were essentially indentured servants, and (2) he seems to have a problem with professionalism in and of itself, and adheres to this vaguely Marxist notion of there being some sort of 'natural' football player, free from the the dehumaninzing constraints of the modern game; his whole thesis is that the old timers were better off because they were free of the routines and regimentation of today's NFL.

Anyway, back to concussions: I have to lay this at the feet of the NFLPA. While the league certainly bears a moral responsibility to protect its players, is anyone really surprised at its see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach? The NFLPA's sole purpose, on the other hand, is to protect its players. It's not a question of how strong the union is, but whether it even understands its own priorities. Heck, even from a purely cynical, PR perspective, it's hard for fans to get worked up over where an extra 3% of luxury box revenues goes; it's an entirely different story if it's about the health and well-being of players we've come to love. Show people a financial statement, and their eyes will glaze over; show them a big, strong, pro-bowl linebacker unable to leave the house because there's too much street noise, and they'll be moved to tears.

by joel in providence (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 4:52pm

show them a big, strong, pro-bowl linebacker unable to leave the house because there’s too much street noise, and they’ll be moved to tears.

i disagree. i think most fans really don't care about athletes as human beings at all. Their performance on the field and generally in public is all we really care about. once their careers over (at least for the vast majority of players) they're not too useful to us.

by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 7:15pm


Is there really anything wrong with that?

I personally dont give a crap what Tom Cruise is doing right now, so I dont see why I shoudl care what a MLB is doing.

Thats the NFLPA's job.

by Warren Rambridge (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 9:14pm

Off the main topic, I confess.

41: I agree, there isn't anything wrong with not caring about the athletes we watch as people. In fact, we sorely need to convey this truth to every talk-show host and idjit fan that gets his panties in a wad whenever an athlete doesn't make nice. If we don't care about athletes as people, then athletes should never be blamed for not caring about our precious little opinions. Yet that is the great sun around which your average sports columnist's world revolves; they resemble nothing so much as a pack of high school girls deciding who's dreamy and who's icky today. (Oh, that gutchy, clutty Tom Brady - DREAMY!) And they're arrogant enough to think their s--t opinion "matters".

/end rant

by Zip (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 10:05pm

Is clutty a combo of clutch and slutty?

by coyotl666 (not verified) :: Fri, 01/19/2007 - 10:14pm

i may be well in the minority here and as a sports fan in general, and i am a diehard giants and knicks fan (could give a shite bout baseball or less than a squirt bout hockey, though i must confess a youth spent in london causes an unrequited love for the gunners) who adopts a win at all costs attitude during a match. but i do actually care for the players. i am happy and honoured for watching tiki the last several years, and actually even more happy he will literally be able to walk away from the game, even though i find his goodness nauseating at times and would likely never watch his television appearances. i think eli's a spoiled brat who i would rather have seen be the one to fuck up san diego's season. when ni smoked crack i loved that my all time favourite player was fueled by the chase for that first high. now i'm clean i hurt at his continued addictions. even though i don't really follow baseball any longer, i have similar empathy for doc and darryl, both of whom made me care about baseball for a couple years. my recent concussions have made me care greatly for people like trent green, andre waters, mike webster, and especially al toon. it's a crying fucking shame and all for, as sergio leone called it "a few dollars more". they all just like you and i. who was the dude charles barkley credits with his earliy mentoring who he met up with living on the streets of houston chasing another bump on the pipe? len bias, jesus of the court, michael ray ricardson, who took his sweet shot and love of coke to nba highs and bottoms. fuck, i love michael vick better today than i did last week. and i hate backstabbers like god's linebanker and the tankman for being big men and gangstas who gotta bring their guns to town. the man in black were a big fucker, but he didn't bring his guns to town (reno ain't no real town, right). like most of us i can't avoid the tales of TO, and so his life becomes of interest by default, and therefore, i do care for his mental health - we all likely know people who just don't work within society's constraints. and i especially love to dismiss the egomania of most all coaches, none of whom i'd imagine i'd enjoy a drink with, and at least one of whom i'd keep my wife away from. less said about owners the better, though i deeply envy jim irsay's capture of the on the road scroll, but props for not hiding it away. yeh, i care for all of them. but then again, i ain't play no video games.