“It’s painful, man, for my daughters to say they’re scared of me…it’s painful.”
Suffering the effects of a thousand hits and crunches in his NFL career, Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett is beset with memory loss, suicidal thoughts and bouts of rage. His family, he says, is often terrified of him.
Dorsett is merely one of many current and former NFL players paying a bitter price for football glory, as the bill comes due for all the concussions they endured on the gridiron.
But the NFL, the organization that has made millions–no, billions–from these athletes, has kept its own head firmly in the sand.
Meanwhile, a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is running amok in present and former NFL skulls: rotting brain cells, smothering memory and inciting uncontrollable anger. Its symptoms can mimic those of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases, and it is now the functional equivalent of dementia.
CTE was discovered in the course of an autopsy after the premature death of retired Pittsburgh Steelers center Michael “Iron Mike” Webster. Dr. Bennet Omalu found symptoms of a new disease, the first tangible evidence that football can lead to permanent brain damage.
Autopsies, in fact, have proven to be an important tool for neurologists. However the NFL strongarmed Dr. Omalu to keep the Nigerian-born specialist from examining the brain of Junior Seau–the fearsome all-pro linebacker who at age 43 shot himself through the chest. NFL agents told Seau’s family that Omalu was a “witch-doctor,” prompting Seau’s 22-year-old son to send the good doctor packing, without the brain.
So much for the National Football League’s good intentions.
But Tony Dorsett wants to get at the truth. He agreed to join a UCLA study that has so far found signs of CTE in eight fellow retirees from the league. Dorsett knows how terrible a toll CTE takes–as he told ESPN recently, he can’t even drive his daughters to their soccer and volleyball games:
“I’ve got to take them to places that I’ve been going to for many, many, many years, and then I don’t know how to get there.”
Ignorance is Bliss–or is it?
Most known victims of CTE are older and retired, like Dorsett. But in 2009, when Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was killed in a car crash, his autopsy revealed signs of CTE. The difference? Henry was only 26, a five-year pro in the early stages of his career. He had never been officially diagnosed with a concussion, either in college or the NFL.
If someone as young as Henry harbored this disease, who is to say there aren’t seventeen and eighteen year-old high school players developing CTE as we speak? Do we really want football, a sport that builds character and mental fortitude, to slowly deteriorate the minds of the next generation? It’s a hidden yet apparent contradiction–one the NFL seems hell-bent on ignoring.
In an elaborate show of official concern, the NFL set up the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee in 1994 to “study” the connection between football and brain trauma. So they hired Dr. Elliott Pellman, a rheumatologist with no experience in neurology, to lead the way. Rheumatologists are specialists in muscles and ligaments. Sure, a lot of football players are muscle-bound, but why not appoint someone who knows something about the problem, like hmm…I don’t know, BENNET OMALU?
It’s like asking a dentist to perform open-heart surgery. You know he’s unqualified for the job, but the fact that he has a PhD is enough to convince you of his preparation.
So far the Pellman committee has published 16 academic papers denying serious long-term effects of concussions for NFL players. U.S. Representative Linda Sanchez of California compared the NFL to a historically evil and convoluting industry:
“The NFL sort of reminds me of the tobacco companies, pre-90′s, when they kept saying, ‘no, there is no link between smoking and damage to your health.’”
The league’s response to studies connecting football with serious brain injuries can easily be compared to big tobacco. They fear the destruction of their image, yet are destroying it in the process by covering up facts and ignoring possible solutions.
A Game in Jeopardy
An NFL doctor conceded:
“If 10% of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”
Well, looks like football is heading for the cliff. According to ESPN, participation in youth football has plummeted. Pop Warner lost 23,612 players in 2012, a 9.5 percent drop from 2010. That dreaded 10% that will “end football” is fast approaching, but will that mean the end of the sport, as we know it?
To prevent football from disintegrating from the top down, the National Football League must acknowledge–not stonewall–the connection between football, head trauma, and CTE.
And simple 15-yard penalties or measly fines aren’t enough to deter vicious hits. Any player who attacks another player, with his helmet as a weapon, should be ejected from the game and kept out without pay for a minimum of one game more, pending league review.
Football can be saved. It’s a matter of doing what is morally and scientifically right, not trying to protect a tough image. I love watching football. However I can say with full conviction that I will never, under any circumstance, let my children play it.
Sports build character and allow kids to develop social and physical skills that they can use later in life. Football does just that, but unless some serious change occurs, it will destroy the lives and minds of thousands of young men for years to come.