Evan Mathis admits that the National Football League's brutal physical demands and its possible long-term health risks are a frequent topic of locker-room conversation, after more than a decade at the sharp end of the National Football League.
The 34-year-old offensive lineman is looking forward to the highlight of his career on Sunday when he takes to the field for the Denver Broncos in their Super Bowl showdown against the Carolina Panthers.
‘National Football League statistics revealed that reported concussions had spiked by 30 percent this season.’
But the money-spinning behemoth of America's sporting calendar is taking place against a grim backdrop of safety concerns for the men, like Mathis, who put their bodies on the line each week in the name of entertainment. Only last week, NFL statistics revealed that reported concussions had spiked by 30 percent this season.
And on Wednesday, the sport digested news that legendary Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler had been suffering from severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)
before his death from cancer last year. CTE is believed to be caused by head trauma that can result in memory loss, dementia and depression.
On January 26, researchers in Boston revealed that former New York Giants safety Tyler Sash, who died in September at the age of 27 from an accidental overdose of pain medication, had suffered from severe CTE, despite playing only two seasons in NFL.
- 'How many more will die?'
A hard-hitting front page column in USA Today on Thursday, meanwhile, accused the NFL of failing to do enough to ensure the safety of its players. "How many more of the players we admired and idolized are going to die before there are substantive changes in the attitudes of the NFL and its players?," columnist Nancy Armour wrote. A recent New York Times opinion piece asked simply: "Is it immoral to watch the Super Bowl?"
The unnerving headlines struck a chord with Mathis, who admitted the risks of his trade were a source of locker-room angst. Fear of the unknown -- the absence of reliable data surrounding CTE and its causes -- was a particular concern.
"We do talk about it," Mathis told AFP. "It's an issue that can be scary because there's so much unknown about it. It's hard to say that there are any definites when it comes to what the game can do to you."
Does (playing football) cause CTE? It can. But do we know that it does for everybody? Or are there certain players that are genetically predisposed to the condition and if they play football are more likely to get it? Are there some guys out there who won't get it? It's tough.
"There's a lot of diseases we don't have cures for. We live in primitive times. And the science hasn't really caught up with a lot of the issues. The biggest thing for me is the unknown. If we were all totally certain that we were destined for CTE and all the problems that can arise from that, then I'm certain less guys would commit to what we're doing."
- Parental concern
What would he say to a parent who was debating whether or not to allow their son to play football? "That's a hell of a question," Mathis said. "I mean, honestly, if I had sons, I probably wouldn't be raising them to play football there's a lot of money in baseball." Denver tight end Owen Daniels has similar misgivings.
Daniels, 33, has played tackle football since he was 10. But as the proud father of a seven-month-old boy, Daniels acknowledged he would be hesitant to let his son play full contact football at such an early age.
"Everyone asks me 'Is he going to play football?,'" Daniels told AFP. "For me I'm probably going to keep him out of football until he's older than when I started, for sure. Maybe if he wants to play in high school, or if he wants to play some flag football before that, that's cool."
"But I think that type of trauma at an early age probably isn't good for down the road. I would say maybe wait and if you still love the game when you get older, then play. My son won't play until he's older, but I'm not going to say he's not going to play at all."
The issue of youth football has been in the national spotlight in recent months. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist whose groundbreaking research into CTE was the subject of the recent Hollywood blockbuster "Concussion" starring Will Smith, believes children should be barred from playing gridiron altogether.
Daniels is adamant, however, that the NFL is moving in the right direction, citing stricter concussion protocols that did not exist when he first entered the league. He recalled a time when players would commonly play on after taking a heavy blow to the head.
"Before the concussion protocols, you'd just kind of shake it off and keep on playing. Part of that is a pride thing for players," Daniels told AFP. "If I felt a little woozy, before the protocols, you would just keep on playing because there was no one there to check you out."
"But now we've got spotters who will check you out if you've taken a hard hit. There have been times in the past couple of years where I've been checked out and I didn't even realize I'd taken a shot to a head."