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National Columnist

Just ask them: NFL players care less about their brains than you do

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They don't want to know. NFL players, I'm talking about. And brain damage, I'm talking about. Their brain damage. They don't want to know.

They could be ticking time bombs -- dementia, homelessness, even suicide are some of the known detonations -- and lots of the players I talked to at Super Bowl XLVII would rather not talk about it. Or even know about it. They would rather stick their head in the sand and pretend the time bomb isn't there, ticking, inside their skull.

"I wouldn't want to know," 49ers running back Frank Gore said.

And yet someday -- someday soon, perhaps -- he could know. That's where the science is headed. Researchers at UCLA recently found one telltale sign of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in five retired football players. Before this breakthrough, the tau proteins that show up in CTE-suffering brains were believed to be detectable only after the person was dead. Now there is hope that those proteins, and that degenerative brain disease, can be detected while the person is still alive. Still playing.

Still able to stop, before it gets worse.

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So I walked around New Orleans last week, asking players on the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers two questions:

1. Do you know about the recent breakthrough that detects brain damage in living football players?

2. If you could, would you take the test? Would you want to know?

I asked a dozen players. Eleven of the 12 didn't know about the test in the first place. And after being told it existed, only five said they would want to know if they were playing with brain damage.

The other six said they would rather not know. They would just keep playing, keep making it worse. Ignorance would be their bliss.

Twelve players is a small sample size. These results aren't definitive, but they're telling. It's a clue, another one, that lots of NFL players really don't care about what's happening to their brains, even as large numbers of retired players -- suffering and miserable -- have sued the NFL for compensation. Even as famous former players like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson have committed suicide with a gunshot to the chest, leaving their brains intact to be studied, suspecting what those studies would in fact determine -- that Seau and Duerson suffered from CTE.

It's another clue, as if we needed another clue. Players continue to use their head as a weapon -- and opposing players' heads as a target. Knockout blows used to happen a few times a year. Now they happen almost every week.

Why? Because too many players don't care about, or even understand, this issue. Everywhere else people are freaking out. Media. Fans. The President of the United States.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell? He's not freaking out. Not publicly, anyway, not with the NFL facing litigation that could change it forever, and possibly speed up its demise. Goodell went on Face the Nation on Super Bowl Sunday and said he would let his sons play football, if he had sons. But he has daughters -- and did you know, Goodell wondered, that "the second highest incidence of concussions is actually girls' soccer"?

Asked about the concussions in his own sport, his own league, Goodell refused to say they were caused by all that hitting.

"That's why we're investing in the research," he said. "So we can answer the question -- what is the link? What causes the injuries some of our players are dealing with?"

Head-to-head collisions cause it. This isn't rocket science, commissioner. Then again, Goodell could have announced on Face the Nation that a long career in the NFL would almost assuredly lead to brain damage, and lots of players today wouldn't stop playing. Not according to the ones I talked to in New Orleans.

"If I was worried about my health," 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said, "I wouldn't be playing football."

When I asked 49ers safety Dashon Goldson if he would want to know that he had brain damage, he said, "I don't think so," and then he laughed. Then he got serious.

"Actually, that's a good question," he said. "I know the kind of guy I am, so probably not, no. I wouldn't want to know."

And then he laughed again.

Ravens offensive lineman Marshal Yanda told me, "I'd want to know if I had it. We'd all want to know."

Wrong, Marshal. Lots of players say they would rather not.

"Well," he said, "I'd want to know."

And if you found out you had CTE, what would you do with that information?

"That would be a tough decision," Yanda said. "I'd have to think about that more than just right here, but if it was going to shorten my life severely, I'd be done. I have a lot of life to live, and I want to see my kids grow up -- and my grandkids."

Of the 12 players I asked, the only one who said he knew about the UCLA brain-damage breakthrough was 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith. But he wouldn't want to know if he were playing with brain damage.

"Not really," he said. "If you have it, I don't think there's anything you can do about it."

Aldon Smith, who lines up next to Smith at outside linebacker, was skeptical that a test could tell him something like that.

"I think I'd know if I had brain damage," he said.

Not really, I told him. Players with CTE now might not see the results for years.

"Wait," Aldon Smith said. "So they have tests that can say in 20 years you're going to have brain damage?"

Yes.

"I'd have to know," he said.

Why?

"So I can say [to my family], 'Baby, in a couple of years I'm going to have a problem,'" Smith said. "So they'd know what's coming."

Would you stop playing?

"No."


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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