BOSTON -- Three NFL players announced Monday they will donate their brains and spinal cord tissue to a Boston University medical school program that studies sports brain injuries.
Even though dozens of former NFL players have agreed to donate their brains after death, Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, Seattle Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu and Arizona Cardinals receiver Sean Morey are the first active players to do so.
The goal of the university's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, a collaborative venture between BU Medical School and Sports Legacy Institute, is to better understand the long-term effects of repeated concussions.
"When you are active, your contract, what you get paid, is based on the perception of your health, and no player wants to be perceived as being prone to concussions," said Chris Nowinski, the center's co-director. "That's why I am so impressed with these guys. I hope they are the first of many."
More than 150 former athletes, including 40 retired NFL players, already are in the program's brain donation registry.
"One of the most profound actions I can take personally is to donate my brain to help ensure the safety and welfare of active, retired and future athletes for decades to come," said Morey, who along with Tatupu has been listed on NFL injury reports in past seasons with injuries described as concussions.
Doctors see sports-related brain trauma as a growing health crisis due to the discovery of the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a number of athletes who have recently died. The condition is caused by repetitive trauma to the brain.
"This is a bigger threat than we are acknowledging," said Nowinski, who suffered concussions as a college football player and professional wrestler.
Sufferers may experience memory loss, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and impulse control problems, progressing eventually to full-blown dementia.
As part of the program, the players will be interviewed annually for the rest of their lives so researchers can examine the relationship between clinical symptoms and pathology.
Birk, Tatupu and Morey have all played in the Pro Bowl, making their pledge all the more significant, Nowinski said. He hopes their participation sparks locker room conversations with their teammates about the dangers of head injuries, he said.
Morey said players need to understand the "serious implications" of playing through concussions or not reporting them because of the cumulative effect of such injuries.
"I played with Ted. He was one of the best guys in the locker room," Morey said. "He took me under his wing and made me feel part of the team when I was just a practice squad player. I think that was sort of the impetus for me to kind of make sure that I did my due diligence, understanding the effects of concussions and report back to the players union."
Tatupu got involved through former Seahawks teammate Isaiah Kacyvenski, Nowinski's roommate at Harvard.
"They approached me about the idea. Just thought it was a chance to give back to the game and the players playing it down the road," Tatupu said inside the Seahawks' locker room in Renton, Wash., on Monday. "Game's been good to me, and I'd like to help people out if I can."
The three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker said he didn't know someone could donate a brain. He said he's already answered some simple questions from the center.
The annual interviews will consist of one phone call a year from the center for an evaluation of one to two hours.
Tatupu returned to the NFC Championship Game in 2006 after a head-on collision with Carolina running back Nick Goings that left both motionless on the field momentarily. Goings did not return because of a concussion, and Tatupu was left with what he then called "cobwebs."
Tatupu refused to answer when asked how many concussions he's had.