In my early teenage years, I played a ton of pickup football. My friends and I all love the sport, but we were all either too small for organized teams or preferred getting clunked with baseballs instead of bludgeoned with pads and helmets.
One Sunday afternoon, we played with a mixture of kids—at 15, I was the oldest and biggest, and I was out there tackling kids as young as 11. During that game, I played quarterback to make my height advantage in receiving nonexistent, and I played safety on defense to prevent me from tackling the smaller kids as often. Playing quarterback was great—chucking 20 yard passes to pre-teen kids with wheels was fun. Playing safety, however, ended up being dangerous.
On one pass over the middle, I dove from my safety position to tip the ball and break up the completion. Mid-air, I collided head to head with the intended receiver, an 11 year old who weighed 90-nothing pounds and wasn’t even five feet tall. His entire right eyebrow had ballooned and turned an ugly black and blue, and his forehead had a 4 inch gash. He looked like he had been beaten senselessly in a bar fight, or been mauled by a pitbull. I was unscathed. A bag of ice and an advil was all I needed—he needed a visit to the ER.
The collision had fractured whatever bone is right above the eye, and he needed a dozen stitches. But for him, that wasn’t the worst part. It was August, and Pop Warner football was beginning. Doctors said he’d never be able to play football again, as the eye fracture was too severe.
I felt horrible. In an absolutely meaningless game of backyard football, my reckless dive had cost this kid his football career. It’d be naive to think that he had a chance of being a professional football player, or even a decent high school player, but that accident took away his ability to ever enjoy the game ever again.
It’s been nearly four years since then, and my attitude towards the sport of football has changed significantly. Four years ago, I was riddled with guilt that this kid wouldn’t be able to play. Today, I wonder if maybe I’m more of a hero than a villain. Is it possible that I actually saved a few years of this kid’s life by injuring him enough to take away organized football?
In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell equated football to dogfighting in The New Yorker. It was the first time I heard about “tau,” and it was the first time concussions and head injuries were put to the forefront of football discussion. Gladwell shed light on a deadly issue that’s been slowly infecting the game for decades—a problem that’s now steamrolling to court. Over 3,000 former NFL players are currently suing the NFL and helmet maker Riddell, claiming negligence and the withholding of information linking head trauma and brain injuries to football.
In the past two years, there’s been a disturbing amount of former NFL players committing suicide. People—even athletes committing suicide is nothing new, but the unique situations of these suicides makes them different. Former NFL players Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, and Ray Easterling all shot themselves, with the former two shooting themselves in the chest, and the latter killing himself after suffering from years of dementia. Duerson and Seau both shot themselves in the chest so their brains could be studied by Dr. Ann McKee, the neurologist who was the focus of Gladwell’s 2009 piece and a more recent feature on Grantland.
Dr. McKee studies the brains of ex-athletes and veterans to help understand the health problems that repeated blows to the head can cause. She’s focusing on how chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) occurs in the brains she dissects, and the deeper she digs, the stronger evidence she’s finding between football and brain damage. It’s not one decisive hit to the head or concussion that’s leading former NFL players to develop CTE—it’s the thousands of smaller hits that build up over years of play. Players aren’t getting knocked into vegetable status immediately, but instead have tau proteins accumulating in their brains. Tau is formed in the brain through these thousands of hits and concussions, and it kills brain cells, causing victims to have dementia, memory loss, aggression, or depression—all symptoms of CTE.
CTE isn’t an automatic death-wish for all—not every player is going to end up like Seau or Easterling. Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw has admitted that he doesn’t use stats when analyzing the NFL for CBS, because he suffers from short-term memory loss, likely due to his years of quarterbacking. Retired tight end Ben Utecht, who now enjoys a second career as a singer, doesn’t remember entire sets he’s performed. Whether these former players will develop dementia or Alzheimers later on in life is unknown, but for players in their early 30s like Utecht, the lingering impact of their playing days is swift and troubling.
Football is coming to a head this decade. Dr. McKee’s research continues to grow in scope and influence—the NFL just gave her center $1 million in funds with no strings attached. Earlier this week, they gave the National Institute of Health a $30 million donation—the largest in league history—to fund brain injury research. Roger Goodell has been accused of downplaying, or even hiding the facts of the matter, but he’s finally wising up (it’s about damn time though). The NFL just wants answers. The players want answers. We want answers.
As the dangers of the sport become more known, I, along with many other Americans, will not stand for it. And if fans won’t accept it, then Congress will eventually follow suit too. Congress waged war on performance-enhancing drugs in sports last decade—brain-injuries will surely be the next crusade. Just last month, the insurance company Travelers sued the NFL to avoid paying for defense from the aforementioned player suit. We’re coming close to a day when insurance companies won’t take the risk with any level of organized football, because there are too many long-term health problems associated with the sport. The idea that the sport may become uninsurable is a greater threat to its existence than Congress, the Players Association, scientists and health professionals, or critics.
Dr. McKee testified before Congress in 2009.
Today, the NFL is the richest and most popular professional sports league in the world. NFL games are always the highest rated television programs every year, and its players are international icons. The most woeful franchise in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns, was just sold for a remarkable $1 billion. All 32 franchises are in the Top 50 of Forbes richest sports teams. The league and the sport itself is peaking right now. Every peak, however, has a valley, and head-injuries will be that valley for the sport. The game will have to change, but when it’s inherently violent, no good solution is on the horizon. (Let’s not get into any potential rule changes.)
Every year, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to watch football. I love football, but the morality of it is simply too much to bear. It’s ethically irresponsible of me to root, cheer, and pay for football players to do their job when I know that they’re literally killing themselves on the field. It’s just not right. It’s easy to not think about this now when the sport is so popular, and no players I’ve grown up loving are babbling madmen in wheelchairs, or in a room somewhere pondering what to do with a loaded gun. It’s not pleasant to think that my favorite player, Aaron Rodgers, might kill himself in 20 years after falling into a CTE induced depression, but it’s a legitimate concern I have now. I don’t want my boyhood idols to have a lesser quality of health than me just because I wanted to see them make the next play. It’s become cliche to call football players “gladiators,” but that comparison has never been more accurate. In grand, circular stadiums, men are killing each other for our own entertainment, and their personal status.
Junior Seau was the first player I saw play who killed himself. He was only 43. Although he might have had other problems that lead to his decision to take his own life, it’s not a coincidence he preserved his brain in his suicide for science. For people of my generation, Seau’s death will be the turning point, because he was still playing as early as 2009. Memory of his heroic play in the modern NFL for the Patriots dynasty is still fresh—it causes his death to linger more. When Seau’s mother is crying in front of the media, yelling to God to “take me, take me, leave my son,” I can no longer ignore what football is doing to people on a humanistic and a medical level.
This hurts to watch every time.
The sport of football is wrong. If that makes me a liberal extremist who is overreacting, then I dare you to watch that video Seau’s mother again. I will still lovingly watch my Packers this year, and maybe even attend a few games, but the same joys I once had from the sport are dead. To me, it’s no longer an innocent, good-natured activity. It’s no longer wholesome entertainment. It’s endorsed barbarism in the 21st century. If my continued fandom makes me a hypocrite, then fine—it’s not up to me to enact change. It’s up to the powers that be to put player health over wealth, and for parents to prevent their kids from playing. I stopped one kid from playing thanks to a head-injury—hopefully he won’t be the last to value his well-being over sport.
Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49