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NFL is head-serious about safety 

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Brains are really on our minds these days.

Concussions, helmet-to- helmet hits, KOs, repetitive blows, cross-checks, bean balls, genetic predispositions, G-forces, dementia, stars flying, bells ringing — if the state of concern about athletes’ brains had a soundtrack, it would be a blend of Salvation Army bell-ringers and bucket boys run amok.

‘‘Why are so many more concussions being reported?’’ asked Dr. Hunt Batjer, the Northwestern neurosurgeon and co-chair of the NFL’s Brain, Head and Neck Medical Committee. ‘‘Because a concussion was a knockout. Now it’s known that only in less than 10 percent of concussions is there any loss of consciousness.’’

Meaning? ‘‘It means that a concussion is a blow to the head that shakes the brain. That’s all,’’ Batjer said. ‘‘And it means that a culture change is occurring in sports.’’

That would be all of us —parents, athletes, coaches, trainers, administrators, doctors, players — rather abruptly realizing that ‘‘getting dinged’’ isn’t the same as spraining an ankle.

It’s becoming common knowledge that a blow to the head can change a person’s life, and football — which is about the art of human collisions — puts players’ heads in the thick of it.

Batjer, 59, a tall, slender former scholarship baseball player at the University of Texas, was talking casually in a meeting room at the Brain Research Foundation in downtown Chicago.

He’s just back from New York, where he and his co-chair, University of Washington neurosurgeon Richard Ellenbogen, met for two days with scientists, doctors, helmet manufacturers, lawyers, ex-NFL players, NASCAR reps, NCAA personnel and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The purpose of the congregation was to try to come to grips with the vast and still unlearned forces that contribute to head trauma in sport and all of life.

Indeed, there were U.S. military people at the meeting, too, because battlefield soldiers are more in need of head protection than anyone.

The problem is so huge and amorphous — the biggest questions for Batjer and Ellenbogen being: What do we know and where do we start? — that there are six spinoff committees underneath them, all with vast amounts of research to do.

But Batjer was energized by the raw possibilities ahead.

At one point, a colleague turned to him and said, ‘‘This is the goddamndest moment in science I’ve ever seen!’’

Everything from tackling techniques to materials to pads to mouth guards to rules to physiology to ethics to the use of space-age nanotechnology was discussed.

‘‘There were guys from MIT there,’’ Batjer said. ‘‘Accelerometer producers, Indy 500 people, the Department of Defense. I mean, it was quite extraordinary.’’

Batjer is a very busy man. His specialty is incredibly complex and delicate brain surgery, and he still is an active doctor.

But his role on the NFL brain committee, at the cutting edge of public safety and guidance, analyzing a game that some critics already say is too dangerous to be played — this is very important to him. And he enjoys discussing it, with passion, when he has time.

‘‘I took the job [last spring]because I’m crazy,’’ he said, pausing a few beats before breaking into a smile. ‘‘No, here it really is. Athletics is a passion of mine. [He still runs marathons.] And I am very concerned about soldiers. By taking this job, I realize that I am responsible for 2,000 professional athletes. But, in truth, I’m also thinking about the millions of kids out there who are at risk.’’

Those are the children who love sports and need even greater protection from traumatic head blows.

The possibilities for the committee, just like the lack of hard facts, are boundless.

‘‘It’s such a massive project that I want to do what we think is possible,’’ Batjer said.

The main thing for him and Ellenbogen is to develop a data base for all incoming NFL players, something so precise and complete that it will cover such things as a player’s drug usage, all previous contact history, diseases, blood and brain history and DNA.

The data base will take years to build, but it will allow Batjer and Ellenbogen to know what exactly is caused by what in football collisions. There are already many retired players who are willing to sign up for such a data base, to reveal other cause-and-effect relationships from their own brain trauma.

‘‘Privacy issues?’’ Batjer said of the data base. ‘‘You better believe it. But no coach or general manager or owner would ever see it. Never!’’

Well, leaks happen in the cyber-world. But the NFL is going after this thing full-tilt, and there may be some wreckage on the way.

Of course, there are millions, if not billions, of dollars to be made by equipment manufacturers and health-care people in this big deal.

But Batjer insisted, before he took the job, that he must be allowed to remain pure, his good name above all. Goodell gave him his word.

‘‘Roger is a man of great compassion,’’ Batjer said. ‘‘I told him I’d only report what’s true. Decisions would be made on medical facts.’’

Even if the research caused liability issues for the league? ‘‘Yes,’’ Batjer said. ‘‘Roger said, ‘Find out what is there.’’’

Some of the things that are surely going to happen are that helmets will be redesigned and will likely be created in unique styles for players at different positions. And children certainly won’t wear helmets designed for adults, as they now do.

‘‘There are new metals that are harder and denser than steel and lighter than aluminum,’’ said Batjer, who has a daydream of finding a coating for helmets so thin and shock-absorbent that it protects the brain like something a hundred times thicker.

‘‘It’s been percolating in my mind — is it possible with nanotechnology to put a film on a contemporary helmet, a layer no thicker than cellophane, that creates a suitable deceleration zone? There is something sort of like it, but it might not retain its original shape ...’’

Such are the visions of the future that must evolve from the problems of the present. Football will continue, Batjer said. No question. But it will change, swiftly.

‘‘It will look as good,’’ he said. ‘‘But it will be a hell of a lot safer.’’



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