The New Republic ran a substantial interview with President Obama a few days ago that covered a wide range of topics from guns, enemies, his view of the presidency, as well as one question timed to the football event of the year: the Super Bowl. Given the upsurge in news and media reports related to brain injuries suffered specifically by football players, it seemed a pertinent topic of discussion. The President revealed as equivocal a relationship with football as likely many people feel: he loves the sport, but acknowledges the very real and growing problem of football related brain injuries.
Sticking with the culture of violence, but on a much less dramatic scale: I’m wondering if you, as a fan, take less pleasure in watching football, knowing the impact that the game takes on its players.
I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football. And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.
I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union, they’re grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies. You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That’s something that I’d like to see the NCAA think about.
A lot of people would agree, particularly the families of young men determined to pursue the sport despite its inherent danger. But, in fact, it’s not just an issue in the NFL and college football; even kids as young as grade school are sustaining their first of, what might ultimately be, many concussions over a lifetime. These, in time, could add up to the type of devastating symptoms suffered by players such as Junior Seau. Seau committed suicide as a result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease typically sustained after a history of repeated blows to the head. According to an ESPN story on the wrongful death lawsuit Seau’s family has filed against the NFL, his case – both the injury and the suit – is not an isolated incident:
An Associated Press review in November found that more than 3,800 players have sued the NFL over head injuries in at least 175 cases as the concussion issue has gained attention in recent years. More than 100 of the concussion lawsuits have been brought together before U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody in Philadelphia. […]
The lawsuit accuses the league of glorifying the violence in pro football, and creating the impression that delivering big hits “is a badge of courage which does not seriously threaten one’s health.”
The stories at this point are legion and growing, debated on sports networks, talk radio; covered in news documentaries, health channels, and in print and online media. And still… Super Bowl Sunday rolls around and gluttony for the sport and all its attendant hoopla overrides concerns for the players’ health; we roar in appreciation for the gladiator-like spectacle. Brain injuries be damned!
But not every media outlet looked the other way. NPR ran a story just a few days before the Super Bowl that was bluntly titled, Stop Ignoring Head Trauma: Turn Off The Super Bowl. The featured image on the piece is that of Junior Seau, and the story lists – like a morbid litany of war dead – the number of players paying an exorbitant price for the fierce pleasure of playing football:
Earlier this month researchers announced that the brain of Junior Seau, the former NFL linebacker who committed suicide last spring, showed signs of the kind of neurodegenerative disease associated with repetitive head trauma. A causal link between the type of skull-jarring hits that professional football players experience and long-term degenerative brain disease, including dementia, is no longer in serious question (see this technical report from the scientific journal Brain and this blog post about traumatic brain injury in women).
The writer goes on to suggest that we consider putting aside the cultural ritual of watching men injure each other for fun, eschewing the “willful glorification” of a sport that seduces young men to subject themselves to impact and injury they may not fully experience until they’re old enough to wish they’d made different choices.
While the NFL and even college, high school and grade school programs go out of their way to insist that safety is their primary focus, the information to suggest otherwise is accruing and the tales being told are bone-chilling. Young men sent back onto the field with brain-jarring concussions that leave them spinning; younger players told to “shake it off” as they’re given a shove back into position; proud, macho men unwilling to admit the gravity of their injury and putting themselves back into play at the expense of irreversible damage.
TruthOut ran a piece on Super Bowl Sunday titled Nine Football Players Killed By Brain Trauma listing the names of just nine of the men who’ve died of injuries sustained by head trauma in football, tragically making the point:
Until very recently, players routinely returned to games with concussions, so long as they were physically able to play – literally risking imminent death. While the NFL has taken steps over the last six years to try to prevent that, even one concussion can have serious, lifetime effects. Even if players fully recover from a concussion, they are still at risk of severe damage should they sustain another one — and that is always a danger for players in a sport where violent hitting is not just expected, but encouraged. […]
That may just be the tip of the iceberg: at the college and high school level, concussion protocols are less rigorous and lightly-enforced, and a high school football player who suffers multiple concussions is no less in danger of lifetime problems than a pro who does.
Read their list; it’s a sobering reminder of priorities being deeply and life-threateningly skewed.
Perhaps part of the problem is one of subjectivity. We don’t get it, it’s invisible; people are walking and talking and seem…fine. We see big, beefy men wrapped in layers of protective gear designed to minimize impact; we see them chest butting and body slamming and turf rolling and think to ourselves, “These guys are monsters, warriors; tough as nails. They LOVE this sport and we love watching them.” The next thought, whether verbalized by a face-painted uber-fan hollering in the stands, or quietly to oneself in a moment of guilty deflection is, “Lighten up…they know what they were getting into, it’s fine…it’s FOOTBALL!” And, hell, it’s easy to embrace those assurances when, after a game, we see the victors all pumped up and smiling, maybe a little scuffed up here or there, but no worse for the wear.
Or so it seems. It might now show. And they just might not know it yet.
I’m married to a man with a brain injury, one sustained after years of repeated athletic-induced concussions and tipped to the breaking point by a seemingly minor rear-end accident, and this event has been a cold-water dip of awareness for me – and him – on the topic. Objectivity is impossible once you’ve become a part of this reluctant club. What I didn’t know then, and what I know now, is that brain injury is, in many ways, a permanent, unpredictable, and life-changing injury. My husband didn’t play football – track, baseball, basketball were his sports – but the reality of what we’ve learned about repeated concussions, however they’re sustained, has made me view any high impact sport, particularly ones in which head injuries are endemic, as ultimately dangerous. What we’ve experienced is in some measure what every concussion-sustaining football player and their families are enduring… and might possibly endure every day – or too many days – for the rest of their lives:
Excruciating headaches, ear nerve damage, tinnitus, scalp swelling, cognitive fuzziness, spatial disorientation, extreme sound sensitivity (and, oddly, hearing loss, as well); emotional swings, personality changes, lack of tolerance, loss of empathy, emotional changes in core relationships, fear, anger, resentment, and tremendous grief at what’s been lost.
As I watch and participate in my husband’s recovery as he traverses life as a “mild traumatic brain injury” sufferer (truly a misnomer, that word “mild”), I’m struck by both his courage in dealing with the laundry list of issues to face, but also his firm resolve to keep fighting. I’m also struck by how many little things add up to create a critical mass of required changes and endurances that can wear out even the most tolerant of people, even big, hefty football players. There’s a drip-drip-drip of erosive diminishing, a sense of losing control, of not being able to be who you were, do what you used to do, or feel and experience what used to be second nature. It takes a profound level of strength and determination to survive and heal from brain injury, not just because of its physical and emotion impact, but also because it’s so unpredictable, so hard to pin down. Just when you think you’ve reached a permanent level of improvement, the smallest jolt can send you tumbling back down to a place you thought you’d left forever. In the worse cases, when something like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) encroaches on any hoped-for improvement, the prognosis is deadly.
For the young, healthy men in high impact sports, it’s hard to picture that journey – the one my husband’s going through; the one so many of the injured players are enduring; the one that led Seau to take his life. Hard to look ahead to what the head-butt that rang your bell today might do to your ability to function in later decades. Hard to think about early onset dementia and the potential of triggering even more complex disorders when you’re in your prime and enjoying the hell out of your sport. Even Steve Gleason, the “special-teams demon” who played with the New Orleans Saints and was diagnosed with ALS in 2010, continues to “love the game,“ despite the fact that the innumerable high-impact hits he took throughout his “crash and burn” career likely played a role in his debilitating and terminal disease. In fact, Cleveland Browns linebacker, Scott Fujita, a former teammate of Gleason’s, went out of his way to make a few oddly deflective points on the topic when asked about Gleason’s efforts in the field of ALS:
“Many thousands of people who have ALS never had concussions and never played contact sports, so Team Gleason is less about investigating whether football is linked to ALS than it is about helping people who have to live with the disease,” said Fujita, who had an uncle who died from ALS. “It’s really about promoting technologies that help ALS patients feel valuable, survive and thrive in the process.”
Later, however, he followed with this admission:
“We can no longer deny a link between concussions, head trauma and post-(football) career brain disease,” Fujita said. “With ALS, there are still a lot of mysteries and there’s a long way to go until we understand that disease, but there’s no denying a possible link there, either.
“As players, we’re always searching for ways to make game safer and to have post-career programs in place to identify symptoms early and treat them,” Fujita added. “Unfortunately, there’s an inherent danger in the game we play and that’s just the reality of it.”
The question is, what’s to be done about it? The NFL is bleeding money due to litigation, and as players age and younger players continue to get injured, the growing awareness of the long-term effects of brain injury can no longer be “shaken off” or flat-out ignored in lieu of profits, fan appreciation, or the “brand” image of the game. Bloomberg Business Week ran a comprehensive piece titled, Will Brain Injury Lawsuits Doom or Save the NFL?, which makes the point that the dilemma is growing and many-tentacled, with continued litigation threatening to cripple the sport:
The league denies both negligence and fraud. “The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so,” spokesman Brian McCarthy says in a written statement. “Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league’s actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions.”
Settling the litigation still might not resolve the conundrum facing football, its players, and, ultimately, its fans. A mainstream financial juggernaut, the NFL could, like boxing before it, drift toward the margins if researchers reveal that gridiron collisions are even more dangerous than we now know. “Thirty years from now, I don’t think [pro football] will be in existence,” Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard told CBS Sports, implying that new rules to discourage violence may diminish the NFL’s appeal.
Given the deep loyalty football engenders at all levels of play—a far more profound role than boxing ever enjoyed—it’s hard to imagine a comparable decline in popularity, let alone Pollard’s expectation of NFL extinction. Then again, smoking was once an essential rite of passage in America and a celebrated element of culture high and low. Today smokers are shunned, even in professional football stadiums.
For some this evolution could not come soon enough; figuratively and literally. As I watch my husband struggle with the long-term ramifications, the fears and the unknowns, related to his brain injury, I can only imagine what fears the wives and families of the many injured football players try to wish away as their loved ones continue to play – or finally face, on a day-to-day basis, when the impact of repeated head trauma catches up and knocks them down too far to get back into play.
The Bloomberg piece concluded with a quote from Mary Ann Easterling. Her husband, Ray, played for the Atlanta Falcons, retired in 1979 and became part of a federal lawsuit against the NFL related to its handling of concussion injuries. On April 12, 2012, after a growing depression brought on by a myriad of brain injury symptoms finally pushed him too low, he shot and killed himself. On July 27, 2012, Easterling’s autopsy report was released, indicating that the signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), progressive damage that has been linked to blows to the head, had been found and determined to be the underlying major condition that accounted for Easterling’s difficulties. [Source]
Despite the pain of losing her husband, Mary Ann had “some vindication” in the posthumous diagnosis. “I knew there was something wrong with his mind,” she says. “Ray knew.” Reading about CTE over the past couple of years, she figured that was it.
She’s staying in the lawsuit, she says. “If nothing else, we need to make sure the players and their wives know what they’re getting into,” Mary Ann says, “so they can think whether it’s worth the price.” [Source; Emphasis added]
Emphasis deeply and earnestly added.
[Watch the Democracy Now! video from their article, As Suicides, Brain Injuries Mount, Safety of Football Questioned, from NFL to Youth Leagues:]