ALS and the NFL: Guest blogger

Former NFL fullback Kevin Turner died of ALS this morning at the age of 46. During his six years with the disease, he worked to raise awareness of the connection between the sport he loved and his ultimate diagnosis.

From an ESPN report:

“Football had something to do with it,” Turner said in 2011. “I don’t know to what extent, and I may not ever know. But there are too many people I know that have ALS and played football in similar positions. They seem to be linebackers, fullbacks, strong safeties. Those are big collision guys.”

Under pressure in the 1990s, the NFL conducted a lengthy study into the relationship between concussions and cases of degenerative brain illness, and concluded that there is no serious connection. Today, as Kevin Turner’s family and friends surrounded him to say goodbye, The New York Times published an article alleging that the NFL’s research on concussions was deeply flawed. The NFL, the article says, omitted findings, including more than 100 concussions that could have skewed the data in a way that Big Football simply isn’t comfortable with. 

Like this:

“The database does not include any concussions involving the Dallas Cowboys for all six seasons, including four to Mr. Aikman that were listed on the N.F.L.’s official midweek injury reports or were widely reported in the news media.”

How nice for the Dallas Cowboys that players suffered zero concussions for six seasons. Except, you know, for the concussions they suffered.

The NFL was quick to push back, and you can see their arguments here. Among their fascinating statements is the admission that the committee did not include all concussions because teams were only strongly encouraged to provide information, not required.

“The studies never claimed to be based on every concussion that was reported or that occurred.”

What, then, was the point of the studies? Seems to me they could have skipped all the nonsense and just donated the money to research.

The following  guest post was written by Matt Bellina, a retired Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy. ALS retired Matt. He is 32 years old, and has a wife and two young boys. Matt graciously allowed me to share this original piece on the blog today, in honor of Kevin Turner and in defiance of the NFL.


One of the most fundamental strategies for winning a football game is to control the clock by keeping your offense on the field. Given this universally accepted principle one has to wonder why the head office at the NFL has spent so much time on defense lately. From domestic violence, to locker room bullying, it seems as if the NFL waits for the media to raise the issue, then responds in an apologetic tone, like a child with their hand in the cookie jar.

While spousal abuse and hazing are serious social issues, neither have the potential to destroy the sport of football like the recent attention on repetitive head trauma in athletes. This is not simply an issue of fans leaving the game because they think it is too violent (although some will), but an issue of deteriorating the entire culture of football in America. Recent polls show an astonishing fifty percent of American parents are not comfortable allowing their children to play football, and that number is not shrinking. If a dwindling talent pool does not cause NFL executives to shudder, they should consider this: As children and young adults stop playing organized football, what will that do to America’s interest in the sport?

So what is the issue with these repetitive concussions and why is it only now coming to our collective attention? This particular cause celebre is being driven by recent medical research on the long-term consequences of repetitive head trauma. It turns out NFL players are three times more likely to develop neurological disorders such as dementia, ALS, and Parkinson’s disease.  The evidence relating head trauma to these diseases was so overwhelming that the NFL recently agreed to a $675 million settlement to afflicted players and former athletes. While Monday morning quarterbacks may debate whether this was a sufficient reaction, it is important to remember exactly what this settlement was. Another reaction.

How can concussions lead to such a wide array of different diseases? Hiding in the answer to this question may be a major opportunity for the NFL. Recent research suggests the pathology of all these different diseases may not be all that different. It is becoming increasingly evident that neurological disorders are caused by the tangling of proteins in the brain. The layman’s explanation is that these proteins turn into a big sticky mess and start blocking signals to healthy cells. The good news is research organizations like are working feverishly to discover innovative ways to untangle these toxic proteins. Unfortunately their total research budget is significantly less than the annual salary of some underachieving quarterbacks. The potential solution should be glaringly obvious at this point.

Limited budgets notwithstanding, recent medical breakthroughs have given scientists a clear understanding of how to target neurological disorders in a way that was previously unimaginable. Over the next decade, funding alone will dictate whether or not we can prevent, halt, or even reverse a wide array of brain related diseases. It would certainly be convenient for NFL stakeholders if this whole problem could resolve itself in that time, but hand wringing and wishful thinking are not going to make it happen.

To be clear, nobody can or should force the NFL to fund any kind of research at this point. The NFL has met their legal obligation by paying out compensation to players and families. With all the presently available information, and with full disclosure from the NFL, current and future players understand and accept the risk of participating in the game. Still, for the NFL to maintain its captivation of the American audience, the concussion issue is going to need to be addressed. Perhaps it is time for Roger Goodell to get the offense back out on the field and start trying to pick apart this epidemic which is literally killing members of his organization. Or he could stay on defense.

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3 thoughts on “ALS and the NFL: Guest blogger

  1. Ida Bianchi

    Dear Sarah,

    I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your writing. My father has ALS combined with FTD. Listening to your story and the stories of others living with this disease is humbling. I am in awe of your spirit and the wisdom of others who face this disease. Maybe you tire of hearing that but I can’t tell you how much reading your work has comforted me and inspired me to keep striving to put joy into my father’s life. Thank you ❤️

  2. Sarah Coglianese Post author

    Thank you so much, Ida. I’m sorry to hear about your father, and really appreciate you posting here.

  3. Brenda Harris

    Dear Sarah, ALS is horrible disease, I lost my dad 39 years to ALS I was only 14 years old, so I don’t remember a lot about my dad but the memory I have I will cherish forever.

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