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Life expectancy of 55 shocks CFLers into push for safety

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Doug Brown sacks Toronto Argonauts' Cleo Lemon CFL action in Winnipeg on Oct. 23, 2010.

John Woods/John Woods/The Canadian Press

Doug Brown will acknowledge it may already be too late for him. Having played more than a decade of professional football, most of it with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the 36-year-old defensive lineman figures he has taken more than 12,000 hits to the head.

And now he's beginning to understand what that means.

At last week's Canadian Football League Players' Association meeting in Las Vegas, Mr. Brown, the Blue Bombers representative, listened in stunned silence as medical findings and a University of North Carolina study painted a grim picture of head trauma and its long-term effects.

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"Repeatedly concussed National Football League players," said the UNC report, "had five times the rate of mild cognitive impairment (pre-Alzheimer's) than the average population," while "retired NFL players suffer from Alzheimer's disease at a 37-per-cent higher rate than average." Then came the kicker. Two doctors determined "that the average life expectancy for all pro football players, including all positions and backgrounds, is 55. Several insurance carriers say it is 51 years."

The data was so compelling that the CFLPA's board spent hours discussing player safety and expressed an interest in adopting an NFL proposal for dealing with dangerous hits. The membership needs to agree to stiffer fines and suspensions for dangerous high-impact hits before its player safety and welfare committee can make a recommendation to the league. CFL commissioner Mark Cohon and chief operating officer Michael Copeland were in Las Vegas and stressed their concern for player safety as well.

"We want to align ourselves with what the NFL is doing," said Mr. Brown, once voted the CFL's top Canadian player. "The NFL has identified eight key points in a football game where players are in a helpless position - when a quarterback throws the ball and is unprotected, when a receiver is catching a pass, when a kicker [is following through] The NFL wants to bring in stronger punitive measures to stop hits on players in those situations."

On the line, contact between opposing players produces impacts 20 to 30 times the force of gravity, Mr. Brown said. "Statistics show a player getting blindsided and not bracing himself gets 100 Gs," he continued. "The way it'll pan out is you start with the most detrimental, severe behaviour and examples of tremendous impact and bring in punitive action. You go from there to changing the culture of the game."

B.C. Lions general manager and head coach Wally Buono believes the league has already done a "tremendous job" altering and enforcing its penalties to, say, protect quarterbacks once they've thrown a pass. As for changing the culture of football, that simply may not be possible.

"The helmet is, unfortunately, a battering ram in how the game is played. And concussions don't come from just hitting an opponent in the head," Mr. Buono said. "I can get one hitting you in the knee, in the back, in your shoulder. You make rules to prevent injuries but at the end of the day it's still a violent game."

Mr. Brown, who wrote about head injuries in Tuesday's Winnipeg Free Press, admitted football players are set in their habits by the time they reach the pros, especially when it comes to using their helmets as a weapon. A former high-level rugby player, Mr. Brown spoke of the difference in tackling strategies between the two sports. In rugby, he was schooled on how to use a rival's momentum against him. "You wrap [your arms]around the guy's legs and fall backward. As he falls, you twist so you end up on top," he said.

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"But in football, you're taught to stand your ground and not give up yards. Using the helmet is part of the game."

By being paid to play, Mr. Brown has agreed to accept a certain measure of risk. His worries go beyond what will happen to him in his later years to the young kids who play at the grassroots level and what's being done to inform them. To underscore the importance of the issue, the new video game Madden NFL 12 will show players suffering from a concussion and being on the sideline for the balance of the game.

The game will not show helmet-to-helmet hits but will heighten awareness of the increasing number of head injuries. Former NFL coach John Madden, who helped develop the video game, told The New York Times that kids can learn a valuable lesson while controlling their virtual players.

"It starts with young kids - they start in video games. I think the osmosis is if you get a concussion, that's a serious thing and you shouldn't play," said Mr. Madden. "We want that message to be strong."

Mr. Brown's message is that "while it's almost too little too late for guys who have been playing a while," the more information on head injuries, the better, particularly for players early in their career.

"The culture of pro sports is there's a lot of denial. It's a young person's game and it's hard to see the light at the end of your career. It's like a rock star mentality," Mr. Brown said. "You work six months a year and play a game for a living. Unfortunately with us, it balances out. There's a payment to be made at the end of your career.

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"Sixty snaps a game, 18 to 20 games a season for 10 years. It adds up."

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Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. More

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