Dr. Russell L. Lonser, chair of the Department ofd Neurological Surgery at the Ohio State University and College of Medicine and Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center.
COLUMBUS — The front line of a changing game can be found a few Hail Marys from Ohio Stadium.
There at Wexner Medical Center is one of the nation’s top neurosurgeons, which in these times means he doubles as one of the top experts on head injuries in football. He is the man who oversaw the study of the late Junior Seau’s brain and a member of the NFL head, neck, and spine committee.
Now at Ohio State, Dr. Russell Lonser is setting off on one of his biggest projects yet.
OSU hopes to launch a long-term concussion study that would track selected Buckeye football players — and a broad range of other subjects — long after they leave campus.
Dr. Lonser, hired by the university in November as chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery, recently formed a multidisciplinary concussion work group. Though details remain unsettled, the idea is to collect mounds of data that will ultimately be shared with other schools as part of a national initiative.
The Big Ten and the Ivy League, for instance, are in their first year of a research partnership to study the effects of head injuries in sports.
“What’s the best way to treat concussions?” said Dr. Christopher Kaeding, head team physician for Ohio State’s athletics department and executive director of OSU Sports Medicine. “Well, 100 players at Toledo, Bowling Green, or Ohio State are not going to find that answer. It's going to have to be thousands of athletes followed over many years.”
The study comes with football at a crossroads as concussions become increasingly linked with damaging long-term effects.
More than 4,000 former players have filed concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL while a growing number of voices have questioned the future of the sport.
At the Sound Mind Sound Body football camp in Southfield, Mich., this month, former Lions cornerback Lem Barney predicted football would be gone within two decades.
“People often ask me do I miss the game, do I wish I could still play with all the money they’re making today,” said Barney, who told reporters he suffered seven or eight concussions during his Hall of Fame career. “Even with all of that, I’d say, ‘Heck, no.’ The game is becoming more deadly today.
“It’s a great game, and I think it’s the greatest game if you like gladiators. It’s the greatest game for yesteryear’s gladiators. But in the next 10 to 20 years, society will alleviate football altogether because of how strong it’s becoming, how big it’s becoming. ... And it’s only going to get worse.”
Dr. Lonser, meanwhile, does not subscribe to the doomsday scenario.
He has seen first-hand the potential damage inflicted by a football life. As chief of neurological surgery at the National Institutes of Health, he supervised the study of Seau’s brain after the former star linebacker committed suicide last year. Seau, 43, showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease tied to repeated head injuries that has been found in dozens of former players.
Yet Dr. Lonser says football will evolve. In 2010, he became part of a new-look NFL head, neck and spine committee after the advisory panel’s past incarnation came under fire for downplaying the relation between concussions and long-term cognitive effects — like “the tobacco companies pre-’90s when they kept saying, ‘Oh, there’s no link between smoking and damage to your health,’ ” California Rep. Linda T. Sanchez told NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during a 2009 hearing.
Dr. Lonser is confident increased awareness, along with recent rule changes, have made the game safer. For instance, head injuries fell sharply after the NFL moved kickoffs up five yards to the 35 and limited the running start of coverage units from 10 yards behind the ball to five. The number of concussions suffered on kickoffs dropped from 35 in 2010 to 20 in 2011, according to a study by Edgeworth Economics. (The percentage of kickoffs returned fell from 80.1 percent in 2010 to 53.5 percent.)
“Sports have evolved throughout time,” Dr. Lonser said in a phone interview. “Take football when people weren’t wearing helmets 100 years ago, when there were a fair number of deaths associated with it. [There] was the development of helmets, the development of padding, the development of rules that significantly impact concussions. Not just in football, but in all sports, this is a process that’s an evolution. Football and other sports have become safer in the past couple of years through a variety of mechanisms, they will continue to become safer year after year, and we’re seeing that happen.”
At Ohio State, Dr. Kaeding believes in the athletic department’s concussion protocol. For several years concussed players have not been allowed to return to a game and are cleared to play again only after symptoms pass.
But Dr. Kaeding and Dr. Lonser, who recently met with football coach Urban Meyer, know there is much to be learned. For instance, beyond studying how to better prevent, evaluate, and treat concussions, they want to know which athletes may be prone to enduring damage.
“Not everyone who gets concussions or who has multiple concussions goes on to long-term subsequent issues, but some do,” Dr. Kaeding said. “So part of the question now is trying to identify who does and who doesn’t, who’s at risk.”
That’s why the Ohio State study aims to track many volunteers for years, even decades. OSU will coordinate with other schools to ensure uniform benchmarks and data.
The biggest question, Dr. Lonser said, “is how long can we feasibly follow individuals who are concussed, particularly if they move out of state or move to other areas? Those are the issues we’re in the process of discussing.”
Dr. Lonser insists the campus-wide study and others like it far transcend sports, saying only a “small fraction” of concussions occur in athletics. But for many in this football state, the ramifications are clear.
The future of America’s pastime could depend on it.
Contact David Briggs at:
419-724-6084 or on
Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.