The United States is obsessed with football, and especially the National Football League (NFL). Between the artistry of the game and fantasy football fanatics, the NFL has become America’s pastime. The size and speed of today’s NFL athlete is the reason the league is so popular, but it is also the reason that the game has become extraordinarily violent.
It is becoming more and more difficult to watch an NFL game without witnessing a player being helped off the field with a head injury or worse, seeing a player lay motion-less or unconscious on the field waiting to be assisted by the team physicians.
According to the Washington Times, as of Sept. 11, there are 3,569 plaintiffs in the impending NFL lawsuits — currently 160 lawsuits in total — in which retired NFL players are suing the NFL for head injuries sustained during their tenure (http://www.washingtontimes.com/footballinjuries).
According to the site, there are three players who began their careers in the 1940s, with the greatest numbers of players listed having played during the 1980s and 1990s, with 859 and 811 plaintiffs listed for each decade, respectively. There are 318 plaintiffs listed as “never played.”
The lawsuits filed state that the NFL is liable for withholding information regarding the long-term impacts of head injuries and concussions and argue that the league should have been more forthcoming in sharing information gathered from research.
Reports from former players who sustained head injuries throughout their careers express difficulties with memory loss, headaches, vision problems, speech problems, early onset Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The players also report psychological symptoms of anxiety, difficulties with impulse control and emotion regulation, depression and suicidality.
There has been increased discussion at all levels of competition about the long-term risks of playing football, the need to implement protocols following a head injury or possible concussion and ways to increase the safety of the sport.
As the number of former and current players who are suffering from psycho-logical issues as a result of their head trauma increases, the number of licensed therapists who are providing treatment to this population will need to increase.
There is limited research on the psychological needs of current and former players who present with issues relating to head injury. We know these issues include depression, anxiety, anger management, family conflict, suicide ideation and substance abuse.
The NFL is not the only organization that is under attack because of head injuries. Similar lawsuits at the NCAA and high school levels contend that institutions have a responsibility to protect their athletes. Licensed clinicians can partner with the NFL (and other organizations) to serve as resources for athletes who have sustained head injuries. As such, there are a few steps that therapists may be able to take in order to help athletes and organizations manage the challenges related to concussions:
- Network and build relationships with NFL team physicians and player development personnel in your market.
- Partner with your NFL franchise to provide comprehensive baseline testing (potentially in conjunction with a neuropsychologist).
- Be mindful of potential brain trauma when working with an athlete in any mental health capacity, as brain injury can manifest itself in a multitude of ways.
- Consider providing (and marketing) a post-concussion protocol (possibly in con-junction with a neuropsychologist) for cur-rent and former players.
- Encourage athletes to obtain MRIs or brain studies to assess possible brain injury.
- Provide psycho-educational information about the connection between physical injury/head trauma and mental health challenges as a means of helping athletes and organization understand and possibly prepare for such challenges.
- Provide counseling focusing on impulse control, substance abuse, grief and loss and anger management.
- When working with current or former players consider integrating strategies to increase memory and slow down potential side effects of brain injury.
- Help educate former players about health benefits they are eligible for and assist them in accessing those resources.
- Encourage honest communication between athletes, coaches and trainers around sports-related injuries, particularly head injuries.
- Help increase awareness related to physical health and increase ability to assess readiness to return to play realistically following injuries.
Shaun Tyrance, Ph.D., is a licensed therapist who specializes in sport psycholo-gy. Shaun earned his Ph.D. in counseling from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and his masters in sport psychology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was a four-year varsity letter winner in football at Davidson College where he played quarterback. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nyaka NiiLampti, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist at Mind over Body, a part of Southeast Psych in Charlotte, N.C. She has an M.A. in sport psychology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and completed her internship at the University of Miami’s Counseling Center, where she worked with both student-athletes and nonathletes.