Your Brain Health Episode 14

Introduction: This is Your Brain Health with noted Neuroscientist, Dr. Kristen Willeumier. Your Brain Health explores strategies to maximize your cognitive functions through life. Here’s Dr. Kristen Willeumier.

Dr. Kristen Willeumier: Welcome to Your Brain Health. I’m Dr. Kristen Willeumier. Today I’m honored to have my dear friend Emmanuel Acho on as a guest to discuss all things football and to give his perspective as a former player on what the league is doing to make it a safer game. Emmanuel’s a former Texas Longhorn linebacker, NFL athlete and college football ESPN Analyst. He also goes on yearly medical missions to rural villages in Nigeria with volunteer physicians, surgeons and nurses who provide services to those in need. So my incredible friend not only cares for his own brain health and the health of his former colleagues, but he has a deeper calling to support the health and wellbeing of those in parts of the world. We don’t have access to the medical personnel and facilities that we are so blessed to have. So welcome Emmanuel. Thanks for being a guest on my show today.

Emmanuel Acho: Of course it is always a pleasure to talk to you.

Host: And remind me, don’t you also have a master’s in sports psychology?

Emmanuel Acho: I do. I have my masters in sports psychology, so I try to stay well-rounded, but like, you know, the brain just fascinates me. What motivates us, what motivates athletes in particular. So I’m super fascinated by the mind.

Host: This is why I love you and why I think you’re a perfect guest on my show. And I wanted to jump right in because as we know, the NFL is an entertainment league and it’s tasked with making the game exciting, creating rules that promote scoring. But now it has the task of protecting the neurological health of the players. And every year they change rules and they really say it’s committed to making the game safer to protect the players from unnecessary risks and injury. So I just wanted to get your opinion. As a former player, do you think the league is on the path towards making a football a safer game?

Emmanuel Acho: I think the NFL is attempting to make the NFL safer. At least it appears they are attempting to. The problem, however, that many of their efforts are misguided. The NFL is an inherently dangerous sport. It’s an inherently physical sport, it’s an inherently violent sport. So they are making rule changes and anybody that follows the NFL has seen the backlash from their rule changes, they’re trying to beef and bulk up, what constitutes a defenseless player. But in doing so you’re truly hurting the game of football itself. So there isn’t an easy way to do this and I’m not going to sit here and say that the NFL has an easy solution, but I do think their effort is currently misguided and their energy towards making the game safer is currently misplaced.

Host: This is why I love having you on the show because you have a perspective as a former player now, what years were you in the league?

Emmanuel Acho: I was drafted to the Cleveland Browns in 2012 and my last year was with the Eagles at the end of 2015.

Host: Great, and did you have any concussions while playing?

Emmanuel Acho: The only concussion I ever got was as a junior in college I was making a tackle. I played for the University of Texas, it was a autumn day in Lincoln, Nebraska and I was going to tackle the running back and I hit his, my head to the side of his knee or the side of my head to the front of his knee. And I genuinely only remember the rest of that game from watching film. I completed the game. The concussion happened on the third play of the game, but I genuinely don’t really remember much of the game outside of watching tape.

Host: Oh my God. That’s wild. And so you continue to play the game. And at that point playing in the NFL, was there any sideline assessment that was done on you?

Emmanuel Acho: It was still relatively new. It’s really not until the last year or two that the NFL was finally taking concussion protocol seriously. You know what college teams and NFL teams, they have sideline evaluation, but if the athletic trainer is being paid by the team, then it’s really in the best interest of the team for the player to go back out there. So it’s not until the NFL is finally had neutral arbitrators to be on the sideline and make sure a player is healthy before they go back in.

Host: And this is one of the things that I really applaud the NFL for doing and what I tell players who are currently in the league, I recommend that they get their own neurologist that they work with. They get baseline testing. So if they get hurt they can go get their own evaluation. I like to be very proactive when I’m helping people take care of the health of their brain. And you and I have had some great dialogues on this and I just wanted to establish even, you know, when you were playing, which was not that long ago, man, they’ve made some tremendous strides in really acknowledging this issue. And I’ll tell you before I made this call today, I just looked on the New York Times and I saw an article, another player just passed away at a very young age. His name was Tao Neshame. He was a linebacker for the Eagles, died at 30 years of age with CTE. And you know, from all the work that I’ve done with the players, these kinds of things are heartbreaking to me. So I just wanted to get your thoughts on, you know, now that we’re seeing these increase in the players that are being diagnosed with CTE, what are your thoughts on these finding and how is it impacting your view of football?

Emmanuel Acho: So I researched CTE a lot even towards the end of my career and had plenty of dialogue with you off the record on the record, etcetera. Every NFL player has to make a decision in life. Every decision is based on risk and reward. And NFL players have to make that decision. Ultimately, the question is, is the money worth the potential damage to your brain, but first you have to understand what is the potential damage to my brain. Because you cannot make a decision if you’re not educated on both sides of the matter. I think the problem with a lot of NFL athletes is they lack the education because the NFL is not going out in and letting players know, Oh FYI there is a significant increase in cognitive degenerative brain issues by playing this game. So players have to take it upon themselves to do the research. My brother’s still in the league, he’s going on year eight with the Chicago Bears. And in all honesty, I’m happier when he plays less every game, like that’s less of a chance for injury, right? So personally I understand the players are making a lot of money, they’re making good money. They, I just wish that each player had the knowledge of what exactly CTE is and how they could at least better help themselves given that they are going to continue to play.

Host: Right. And that’s why I love you in the position that you have being able to help educate players, your brother, former colleagues and I’m really just so proud of you for taking that stance. And a question that I have. You know a lot of people talk about this. So there was a study done by the Aspen Institute, which is a nonprofit think tank that recommends that USA football, Pop Warner, and other youth football organizations should not have kids play tackle football before the age of 14. So I think you and I both agree, you know, youth sports helped to build positive experiences, teamwork and skill development. This is a time when the neurocircuitry in the brain is in an active growth phase and is extremely vulnerable to concussive and sub concussive impact. So what are your thoughts on the call to delay the start of tackle football? When did you start playing tackle football? Let me just ask you that.

Emmanuel Acho: So I started playing when I was eight years old and I think the call to delay the start of tackle football was, geez, I don’t think there’s a reason that’s a fourth grade, eight year old, which was where I was at. There is no reason for that young hundred, you know, four pound running back to be, you know, prancing around the grass, getting hit by 120 pounds, you know, preadolescent kids, there’s no need for it. So I agree with the delay in tackle football personally. That’s my stance right now. You know, if I were to have a young one, I probably wouldn’t let them play tackle until 12, 13, 14. There’s just really no point. Football does teach so many incredible things and padded football teaches so many incredible skills that transcend the game itself. But again, it’s all cost benefit analysis.

Host: Right. What about tackle football? Well, I guess you do need to learn those skills during high school. And so I’m like, can’t we delay it until the end of high school? But you know, me, I’m torn. So I’m all about how long can we protect your brain health? Because truly the issues that we’re seeing, it’s the length of time that you play the game and the number of impacts you have over time that’s really causing the early degenerative processes in the brain to begin. So I do like that we’re delaying it and I really appreciate your thoughts on that. Now let me pivot to the football helmets and you and I have discussed this before. So they do a great job at protecting the skull from fractures, but we know they’re ineffective at preventing sub-concussive impacts or protecting the brain from injuries. So football helmets do a great job at protecting the skull from fractures, so I’m curious, what are your thoughts on the new helmet technology like VC zero one and for those of you who are not familiar with VC zero, it’s essentially a multilayered helmet design that’s now being used by most NFL teams really to help mitigate the linear and rotational impact forces to the brain. The helmet costs upwards of $1,500 and they say they can do 300 different sizing options to fit various head shapes and they have a design that actually expands a player’s peripheral vision. So what do you think about this technology Emanuel, and what are your friends saying about it?

Emmanuel Acho: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So I actually work pretty closely with Vices and their CEO, Dave was talking to him yesterday. I’ve been up to Seattle, Washington to the helmet factory where the Vices helmets are made. Here’s what I know to be true, the game of football, because it is inherently dangerous. There is not a rule change that can occur that can still keep the integrity of the game, but also protect player’s safety. So then what must occur must be a higher standard of protective equipment. What I appreciate about Vices, it does not claim to limit concussions because a large enough case study is yet to be done. But what it does do with it is clearly tested the best from both the collegiate and the NFL testing’s. When it comes to the reduction of impact force. I’ve seen the helmet, I’m not seeing the structure of the helmet. It’s very new age. It’s actually, it’s pretty phenomenal. Just from a engineering standpoint. What I know is that the helmet needs to continue to, it will continue to evolve. Obviously become more price effective because like you said, at $1,500, a lot of those kids in the inner cities can’t afford it. And so to answer your question and then the crux of the issue is, I personally believe helmets such as Vices are the only way for the integrity of the NFL of the game of football to be maintained. But also for safety to be upheld. You have to hope for a product like vices.

Host: That’s wonderful. Have you tried one of these on?

Emmanuel Acho: Yes. They came and met me in the Dallas area and they showed me the helmet. It’s actually, it’s the most level way to explain it is imagine catching an egg from a distance. If you were to toss me an egg if we’re in the same room, 15 feet away, I wouldn’t try to grab it tensely or it would break. Instead, I would try to decelerate the force, decelerate the egg so that it wouldn’t break essentially based off the premise and principle of force equals mass times acceleration. Then how do we decrease the force of the hit? We decrease the acceleration. So the helmet in a nutshell tries to decrease and absorb that blow so that it can be less impactful.

Host: Yeah, it’s just a reduction in G forces to the brain. And I can’t wait to see the data that comes out on that because as you’ve said, we, the game of football is inherently violent. And so we’ve got to find other ways to help support and protect our players’ brain health. Is it lighter than the Riddell helmet?

Emmanuel Acho: No. So currently I believe the Vices helmet is a little bit heavier, which is one thing they’re trying to figure out. And then also it does give a wider line of flight. But I think the Vices zero one is truly just the beginning. And here’s what I do know is competition breeds, it breeds a higher level of performance. So right now the vices has tested the best. And I love what their engineers and their scientists are doing. That’s why I stand behind that helmet. But I hope it does continue to challenge Riddell to be better. I hope it continues to challenge the Shut helmet because ultimately my goal is for the game of football to still be played at a high level, but just be played safely.

Host: I love, I love that Emmanuel. You are such a wonderful guest and a dear friend. And where can people see you?

Emmanuel Acho: You can catch me on ESPN every weekend on ESPN two, but also I keep my content online. So Twitter, Instagram at the man, Acho A. C. H. O.

Host: You’re awesome. Emmanuel, thank you so much. I would love to have you back on the show and as you know, I’m wishing you much continued success and thank you again for your insights. They’re very valuable.

Emmanuel Acho: Of course, have a good one.

Conclusion: You’ve been listening to Your Brain Health with Dr. Kristen Willeumier. For more information or to contact Dr. Willeumier, visit Dr. Willeumier.com. That’s D, R, W, I, L, L, E, U M, I, E, R.com.