Football is in big trouble.
But the public charade and denial in the face of science regarding the link to brain damage is coming to an end.
Maybe it proves lethal to the game, but it may just force changes that end up, in the long run, saving it.
At the very least, players can now be certain what they’re getting into.
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It’s hard to pat representatives of the NFL on the back for belatedly acknowledging an obvious link between the game and possible brain damage from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
But with one sentence, the future of the game changed.
Last Monday, in a congressional hearing, Jeff Miller (NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety) was pressed whether he believed there was a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE.
Miller’s response: “The answer to that question, certainly, is yes.”
The league has engaged of a pattern of disavowing a firm correlation and questioning the science. Its future, its image, and the potential legal consequences relative to the class-action suit by thousands of ex-players surely contributed to the league’s reluctance to make the connection.
But case after case have become headlines, former players being posthumously diagnosed with CTE after a history of personality changes, troubled family lives, violence, mental illness, homicide and suicide.
It’s not just a problem with the NFL — it goes all the way down to the grassroots of football and to all sports that involve the possibility of repetitive head injury.
Dr. Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, recently was quoted as saying the broadening scope of the problem keeps him up at night.
“… It seems to be much more common than anybody imagined,” Koroshetz said. “I think we have a significant problem that’s getting bigger as we see how this pathology is more common.”
NFL players have started retiring early, sometimes turning away from big contract money. Many cite concerns over exposure to CTE.
Down deeper, at the heart of the game, this news will be brought up at dinner tables around the country, when kids ask parents or guardians for permission to turn out for the team.
Further studies can only add to the capacity of making enlightened decisions. And don’t always think the kids will go along with it.
I’d be a hypocrite if I said this is an easy debate.
I played eight years in high school and college, and would do it again, even knowing the risks. There is something satisfying about the physical nature of the game; it’s a cocktail of testosterone and competitiveness that can be intoxicating to a young man.
I used to get asked how many concussions I’d had. I’d joke: Just the one, from my sophomore year in high school through my senior year in college. In truth, I probably had things go black three or four times, and saw stars many, many other times.
Back then, you thought that was normal, that you understood the risks and accepted them. Maybe it’s just now that we’re seeing the real down side.
One of my favorite Seahawks to cover over the years was Grant Feasel, a center in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was huge and likeable and extremely intelligent, headed into medicine or dentistry after his football career. A real battler on the field, he seemed a teddy bear off of it.
He’d had a number of injuries he dealt with, and once told Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley that “… It’s just part of the job. If I have some soreness when I walk when I’m 50 or 60, well, if that’s the only problems I have, I’ll be living pretty good.”
But those were not the only problems he had. And that’s the insidious danger of CTE, you don’t know you have it until it’s too late.
Feasel died in 2012 at age 52. Stories told of his personality changes, alcoholism, and the ultimate posthumous diagnosis of CTE.
The game takes varied tolls on most who play. Men and boys are drawn to it, and I hope there are ways through science and invention and rules changes that can diminish or eradicate the dangers.
At least at this point, the risk is being more fully understood.
Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett, reportedly diagnosed with CTE symptoms in 2013, expressed a sad lack of awareness that may be spared to future players.
“I signed up for this when … I started playing football so many years ago,” he said. “But, obviously, (that was) not knowing that the end was going to be like this.”