In an unwelcome coincidence for a professional sports league fending off a barrage of criticism over its handling of player concussions, this week's opening day of the 2012 NFL season coincided with the publication of the first-ever government study on how the sometimes brutally violent NFL affects the health of ex-players — and the results are troubling. Drawing data from 3,439 athletes who played in at least five bruising NFL seasons, researchers discovered that former players are four times more likely than average Americans to die from brain disease. (Read more about the NFL's concussion crisis here.) The study was published shortly after the NFL announced that it's giving $30 million — the largest philanthropic donation in the organization's 92-year history — to concussion research at the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health. But critics say the NFL still isn't doing enough to protect the players who have earned the league billions of dollars in revenue. Is the NFL falling short?

The NFL is doing its best: The $30 million donation "proves that [commissioner Roger] Goodell is serious about making sports safer," says Nicholas Goss at Bleacher Report. As concerns over head injuries have grown, concessions to player safety "have even sparked rule changes." And remember, in recent years, a raft of research has made it easier to understand concussions and thus "prevent players from having brain and other head injuries while playing — and long after they retire." The donation to the NIH will help to ensure that these kinds of improvements continue long into the future.
"NFL and Roger Goodell donate $30 million in effort to pioneer player safety"

But the NFL screwed up for decades: "The NFL has failed its former players," says Tim Dahlberg of the Associated Press. Though the $30 million grant could be seen as "proof that the NFL really does care about the health of its players," it was only in the last few years "that the NFL even acknowledged a link between concussions and serious head injuries." The donation is nice, but it doesn't make up for the "3,377 former players who already have permanent brain injuries from concussions or are showing signs of impairment." And remember: The NFL is still putting "its vast legal resources to work" against ex-players' claims of league negligence.
"NFL calls the shots as new season begins"

And contemporary players are still in danger: The study drew primarily on data from NFL veterans who played during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, when the average player was both smaller and slower, epidemiologist Steve Marshall tells the Los Angeles Times. So the health effects "might be worse" for today's players, who are bigger, faster, and hit harder. Clearly, more research is needed.
"Former NFL players found to be at greater risk for brain diseases"