SANSEVERE: Matt Birk believes football is getting a bad rap

ST. PAUL -- After a Hall of Fame-caliber NFL career that included a Super Bowl championship with the Baltimore Ravens, former Vikings center Matt Birk began working for the league, which he now serves as a special adviser.Birk, a St. Paul native ...

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ST. PAUL - After a Hall of Fame-caliber NFL career that included a Super Bowl championship with the Baltimore Ravens, former Vikings center Matt Birk began working for the league, which he now serves as a special adviser.

Birk, a St. Paul native who attended Cretin-Derham Hall High School, announced in February 2013 he would donate his brain to Boston University's School of Medicine for concussion research.

Last month, after the release of a study that revealed 110 of 111 brains of NFL players had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head, Birk tweeted, "What about the 15,000 or so deceased former NFL players who lived full lives and didn't have CTE?"

The Pioneer Press talked with Birk about his life and views on CTE.

Let's start with the question on every Vikings fan's mind: Are they good enough to make the playoffs this season?


They're definitely good enough. I think the defense has shown it can be elite. It can be a top-five defense. If you have a top-five defense and are close to average on offense, you can win a lot of games - especially in November, December and January. Defense travels better than offense does. The further below average the offense is, the defense has to be that much more dominant.

You seemed to express some opposition to the recent study that showed 110 out of 111 brains of NFL players examined had CTE. Why?

FIrst of all, let me say, I was the first active player to donate my brain to that group. Hopefully, they won't need it before I'm dead. I sit on the board of USA Football, which is the national governing body of youth and high school football. I'm vice president of development for American Youth Football, which is the largest youth football organization in the world. I have a fourth-grade son who's started tackle football this year, and I'm out there coaching him. I am all about making the game as safe as possible. I'm very aware of the risks and rewards. The prompting of the tweet was it was a biased study. The reason 111 brains were sent to them is those brains were showing some symptoms (of brain issues). I'm just all about getting the facts out there so folks can make an educated decision. I don't like stories that sensationalize and paint this grim picture of football.

What would you say your official stance is on CTE at this point?

I would stand with the scientists (who want) to fully understand the effects. There's no question that taking blunt trauma to the head is not ideal for your brain. But every responsible scientist said you need 20 or 30 years to figure this out. That's why the NFL and other organizations are putting a huge amount of dollars in this research. My only stance is, I can only go by what I know. A small percentage of people who play football are having severe consequences. The majority of them, their lives are better from playing football. You learn lessons. You make friends. You get exercise.

How many concussions did you suffer in your career?

Three. One in high school, one in college and one in the NFL. Obviously, I'm perfectly fine.

Are you seeing any signs associated with CTE or brain injuries?


No, I don't think so. My life is chaotic. Do I forget where my keys are and leave the refrigerator open? I chalk that up to being a dad and trying to do 10 different things at once.

Players are constantly getting bigger, faster and stronger. That's made the game as exciting as ever, but logic says it's also getting more dangerous. Is that fair?

I don't think that's fair. I think at some point you could have said that (but) you have to look at the rule changes. There are more protections for players. I'm not anti-CTE research. The culture of football has totally changed. When I played, nobody sat out because of a concussion, (especially) a star player. Now players are missing games because of concussion symptoms. Nobody is questioning their toughness or saying anything about it. Linemen have stayed the same for the last 15 years in terms of size. Sometimes, we tend to over-exaggerate that. You do see some freaks out there, where guys are so big, so fast.

The NFL has taken steps to make the game safer. Have they gone far enough? Maybe too far? Would you change anything about the current set of rules in relation to player safety?

I don't think so. People have adjusted.

You tweeted out a photo that shows your kid plays tackle football. Do the benefits of playing football outweigh the risks?

There's no question. Football teaches discipline, teamwork, there's a brotherhood. People say, "Can't you get that from other sports?" You can get some of that. Football is unique. Nobody loves blocking people or hitting people, but you do it for the good of the team. I think the things you learn in football are critical. Is it for everybody? No. I didn't start playing football until the 10th grade. There's a place for everybody on a football team.

In your opinion, is the future of football in any doubt?


I don't think so. You're really hearing only one side. Football is kind of under attack in the media. You have millions and millions of people who play football and love it. People are coaching football for free, trying to make boys into men. There are people passionate about football who believe in its power and purpose. Football isn't going anywhere.

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