ISU researcher: Wives of NFL players say concussions underreported

January 31, 2018 GMT

POCATELLO — After corresponding with wives of current and former NFL players, Idaho State University researcher Caroline Faure has concluded that concussions are likely underreported in the NFL and that the wives and families of concussed and potentially concussed players could use more support.

“I have two studies coming out that are closely related,” Faure said. “I had unique access to these women and they just had incredible stories and provided data about unreported concussion in the NFL.”

During the week of Super Bowl LII, Faure, a professor of Sports Science and Physical Education in the ISU College of Education, will present two papers related to concussion in the NFL at the Big Sky Athletic Training and Sports Medicine Conference in Big Sky, Montana. Faure was assisted by doctoral student Madeline Casanova.

The titles of her studies are “Gisele Didn’t Lie: An Understanding of the (Truer) Prevalence of Concussion to NFL Players: The Wives Tell All” and “The Attitudes and Lived Experience of Football Wives Relative to Their Concussed (But Don’t Tell the NFL) Husbands.”

The reference to “Gisele” in the title of first title refers to Gisele Bündchen, the wife of New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady. Bündchen alleged her husband was concussed during the 2016 NFL season.

“Her statement set off a firestorm of controversy because the injury was never reported, and Brady was never evaluated or removed from play,” Faure said.

Ultimately, the NFL Players Association and the NFL conducted independent investigations and each concluded that no concussion had occurred.

“A lot of people said that Gisele Bündchen didn’t know what she was talking about, but for me I thought that she would know more than anyone because she goes home at night and sees the most authentic side of her husband. She doesn’t see the player, she sees the man,” Faure said.

Through contacts, Faure was able to have the moderator of a NFL wives’ closed Facebook page post a 30-question survey on that site, which is dedicated to wives of current or former NFL players from the 1980s on. The survey was designed to gauge the observations of the wives relative to published concussion identification guidelines and provided the data for the first study listed above.

Faure solicited 59 responses to a questionnaire that was open for a two-week period prior to the start of the 2017 season. Like Bündchen, more than 98 percent of respondents, who all remained anonymous, were aware of instances in which their husbands failed to report symptoms associated with concussion and 86 percent were aware of instances in which their husbands continued to play despite feeling concussed.

“Thus, according to the wives’ accounts, it could be reasonably argued that more concussions to players occurred than were diagnosed and/or reported,” Faure said. “Wives reported their husbands felt pressure to continue to play despite concussion and 71 percent of wives stated that their husband now suffers from one or more lingering side effects commonly associated with concussive history.”

For the second study, Faure did follow-up telephone interviews with 20 of the respondents. This study aimed to uncover and describe the lived experiences of NFL players relative to their concussive history, as told by those who may know them best, their wives.

“From those interviews, we just got these emotionally robust descriptions of how concussion has affected the lives of the wives and families of players,” Faure said. “The wives reported enormous physical, emotional and behavioral changes that they believe are the result of playing football and taking too many shots to the head. Sometimes these changes were to the point the women being unable to recognize the men they were married to because their husbands had changed so much.”

Faure reported four themes to the wives’ narratives. They included the husbands becoming unrecognizable, an emotional toll on wives and families, the husbands’ willingness to conceal concussions, and a disdain towards the NFL for a lack of support.

“The stories within each of these themes illustrate the magnitude of the injury’s cumulative effect and suggest more changes to the game, both cultural and managerial, are needed,” Faure said. “Otherwise, the risk players take may not be worth the reward.”

Three of the women who were interviewed had husbands who died and were posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

Some of the wives noted that the NFL only guarantees health insurance coverage for five years after vested players have retired. Many of the long-term, cognitive, behavioral and emotional issues caused by concussive history or CTE don’t show up until after those benefits expire.

“The whole story is incredible. It is just a very sad and sobering view of professional football,” Faure said. “There is research out there that has studied the effect of traumatic brain injury on families and the need for a social network for families with a head-injured member, but nothing had been done yet that looked at how concussive history affects football families and what kind of support they need. It is not something the NFL has considered. There is little support for these wives and families of players when it comes to concussion.”

Faure said she thought critics of Bündchen were ignoring the greater issue that the wives and family members of players need to be more included in the concussion protocol process.

“It is something we preach at the high school level all the time, that parents and families need to be involved because they see things that may be masked out on the field or in the locker room,” Faure said. “I’m not suggesting that wives be involved in concussion reporting, but certainly they need educational and social support resources made available to them, along with money to help pay for health care. This clearly isn’t happening at the professional level.”