This year, my Boston sports team supporting husband who watches all the sports on TV if Boston is playing, decided to boycott the sport entirely. I do not follow sports, especially the sports that are popular in the US, and hence didn’t really notice, until he was asked by someone if he was excited for the game, and he told him about his decision. That got me interested in the problem. The husband isn’t one to passionately denounce something just because he doesn’t like the way things are. He’s a lot more reasonable and analytical of a personality than I am. Naturally, I was interested to find out what it is that elicited such a strong response from him.
So, I did some reading and watched the PBS documentary called “the League of Denial” as recommended by a friend at the dog park. Husband and I watched the documentary on the same day American football fans were gearing up for the two Championship games of the season – the two respective winners would end up facing each other on Superbowl Sunday, that day when people gather in their living rooms to eat awesome food, drink some beer and watch giant men throw a ball around and pound the shit out of each other.
No documentary has ever left me this angry.
It’s not like the information presented was new. This is all well known. It’s just the league, ie the NFL has shown so much willful ignorance about the scientific evidence, and scientists on the NFL payroll have been deceiving the public and the media for so long, that it all seems bizarre to me.
Pittsburgh worships their star player Mike Webster, who is hailed as an important part of the “Steel Wall”, and is often credited with winning his team four super bowl titles in his 17 year career. “Iron Mike” retires from the game and his life is taken over by depression, memory loss resulting in unemployment and lack of medical insurance, drug abuse, divorce and his periodically living in his car. His drug abuse spirals out of control and he has to resort to forging prescriptions for Ritalin to take control of his dementia. Mike dies at the age of 50 looking more like a 70 something year old man, than a former pro athlete. Watching his taped interviews where he struggles to put together simple sentences that you and I take for granted everyday left me with visible tears. And, then they introduce you to his family, their pain was raw and too much to handle.
“Iron Mike” dead from a heart attack, is diagnosed with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Endelopathy) post mortem. CTE Is caused by multiple concussions and is thought to also be caused by sub-concussive head hits, ie those hits to the head which do not cause concussions. Symptoms of CTE according to Wikipedia include "changes in mood (i.e. depression, suicidality, apathy, anxiety), cognition (i.e. memory loss, executive dysfunction), behavior (short fuse, aggression), and in some cases motor disturbance (i.e. difficulty with balance and gait).”
The neuropathologist who looks diagnoses Mike with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encelopathy) is the first to find the condition in an American football player. He is also black, trained in a foreign country and speaks with an accent. Therefore, the NFL accuses him of practicing voodoo in spite of him being better qualified than all the other doctors on the NFL medical staff. Dr. Omalu a forensic Neuropathologist later diagnoses CTE in another Pittburgh player, Terry Long. Dr. Omalu continues to face racism, and ostracization in the NFL community in spite of academically verified and published work that proves CTE is caused by multiple injuries to the head, the likes of injuries sustained while playing football.
The NFL has been financing and conducting “studies” on the problem since 1994 and claims that there is insufficient “evidence” to suggest that there is a link. An NFL commissioned study in 2009 showed that NFL players are diagnosed with memory related diseases or Alzheimer’s about 19% more often than the general population. This study was buried by the league, and later leaked to the press. But, the NFL is still studying.
While the NFL continues to “study”, the greater scientific community continues to publish research and show concrete evidence that there is no doubt that injuries sustained during playing American football can result in CTE. To date, according to the documentary and research done by Dr. Anne McKee’s CTE study center at Boston University CTE has been found in 45 out of the 46 brains of NFL players that have been looked at. (Oh, but then she’s a woman, women can’t do science!). I think these numbers have now been updated to be in 70s. About a year ago, Californian researchers were able to show signs of CTE in brain scans of living NFL players. So, there is hope that soon doctors may be able to diagnose CTE in living NFL players conclusively, without having to wait till they are dead.
In the past few years an 18 year old playing high school football, and a 21 year old playing college football have shown significant signs of CTE in their brains, post mortem obviously. I’m sure people will make the argument that pro athletes make the big bucks and therefore they have to put their bodies on the line (that will be an unethical argument, but it can be made) but are we really going to allow the rules of the game to subject our kids’ bodies to this kind of trauma? College athletes don’t make the big bucks, in fact I’m sure some people will remember stories about players being disciplined when they eat more than their fair share, and the immoral and unethical practices that occur in college football. The abuse that results in CTE in mature adults is being condoned on kid’s bodies - can you imagine what it’s doing to the tender brains of pre-pubescent kids whose brains are still developing?!
Football fans, I ask you how is this okay? The people you clap for and cheer on when they abuse and misuse their bodies on the field for your entertainment should not have to live out the last days of their lives like “Iron Mike”. Their bodies are being used to make a multi-billion dollar corporation billions more. What kind of a society sits on their hands and condones this kind of abuse? What does this say about us as a people and as a culture?
Support your players not only by cheering when they score. But also support their bodies which they are putting on the line for your entertainment every day. Listen to what they have to say about the way they are living out the rest of their lives, dramatically cut short by the abuse you are inadvertently sponsoring. Support their wives and children, listen to their collective voices, and be open to the scientific evidence in front of you. The least you can do is keep an open mind and watch the PBS documentary. It’s free and it’s been made for you, the fans of American football. Available here - League of Denial If you won’t do this much for your beloved players, maybe you should bash your head against the wall.
Make sure you wear a helmet.
Make sure you wear a helmet.