Football Helmets under Scrutiny for Brain Damage

In football, ferocious tackles and collisions that often caused concussions used to jokingly be called getting your bell rung. But new research has shown that even apparently minor hits may do long-term brain damage.
CBS
From the NFL to college campuses, the 2010 football season has begun and so has a new round of concern over head injuries to players. Ironically enough, it's a piece of equipment intended for safety that's coming under particular scrutiny.

A moment of silence was observed at Saturday's football game between Penn and Lafayette to remember Penn player Owen Thomas, a star defensive end who stunned family, friends and teammates by committing suicide last spring.

This week there were more shocking revelations when autopsy results revealed samples of Thomas' brain tissue showed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, brain injuries caused by repetitive head trauma which have been linked to depression and impulsive behavior, CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports.

"It does give a possible contributing factor to what was an astounding, out-of-the-blue act," said Katherine Brearly, Thomas' mother.

CTE has been found in 21 diseased NFL players, including Andre Waters, who also committed suicide. But at 21, Thomas is the youngest and first non-professional player known to have the disorder. He had never been diagnosed with a concussion.

Ferocious tackles and collisions that often caused concussions used to jokingly be called getting your bell rung. But new research has shown that even apparently minor hits may do long-term damage.

Dr. Hunt Batjer of Northwestern University works with the NFL to monitor head injuries like the ones suffered last Sunday by Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Stewart Bradley. Bradley struggled to get up, only to collapse seconds later. Within minutes he was back in the game although he was quickly taken out and remains on the sidelines.

"When two helmets hit each other at moment zero, they stop," said Batjer co-chair of the NFL's brain, head and neck medical committee. "They don't break. The brain continues to move."

There's no question today's players' size and strength contribute to the growing number of head injuries, but some wonder if today's high-tech helmets also play a part, whether the promise of better protection gives players a false sense of security and encourages them to take risks.

Former coach and current football analyst Beano Cook believes modern players would better off with the leather helmets their great-grandfathers wore.

"Many times players don't tackle anymore," said Cook. "They just go head first into some player."

There's no question head trauma in football is now getting unprecedented attention with researchers combing through data from studies like one using special helmet sensors at Indiana University.

In the meantime the game goes on as it did Saturday night at Penn, where Thomas' team now plays without him.