“I am in here counting the days/While my mind is slipping away.”
The opening lines of the emotional ballad “You Will Always Be My Girls,” written by former NFL tight end Ben Utecht, paints a picture that has become all too common: players coming to grips with permanent brain trauma.
Utecht played in 51 games over four seasons with the Bengals and Colts, winning a Super Bowl with Indianapolis in 2006 before retiring at 27 after suffering five diagnosed concussions over his career. Utecht, now 34, has been suffering from memory loss since 2011. He wrote the song for his wife and then three, now four, young daughters.
Along with every other football fan in America, over the last few years I have grown acutely aware of the mental health risk the game poses to its participants. Everyone knows concussions are not healthy, but it has been long understood that if they are managed correctly, the game is safe.
However, quietly, then loudly, that narrative has withered. The gradual discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a progressive, degenerative disease that can only be diagnosed post-mortem — in countless brains of otherwise prematurely deceased football players has led to the realization that perhaps football is wholly unsafe.
Thousands of former players have claimed the NFL tried to cover up how football can cause permanent brain injuries. After years of denial and spin, in 2013 the league changed their tone, reached a $765 million settlement and agreed to invest in further research; despite this, the debate over the actual level of risk involved and prevalence of brain trauma in football rages on.
And the game continues.
It’s not excusable, but it is understandable as to why the league would be motivated to avoid talking about the risk of brain injury. Football would not be football without hits. This Super Bowl Sunday, millions will tune in to watch, although a sizable portion may just be watching for the commercials. The rest have an emotional or vested interest in the outcome or just want to see a ‘good game.’
When all is said and done, Monday’s highlight reels, as they are every Monday throughout the fall, will be full of not just scoring plays but the night’s biggest hits.
But at what cost?
“I’ll hold on as long as I can to you/I may not remember your name/Or the smell of the cool summer rain.”
I never played football. I can’t pretend to be an authority of ethics either; I have more questions than I do answers. But since watching the PBS “Frontline” documentary “League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, ” which coincided with the book of the same name, a little voice in the back of my head reminds me every time I watch a game that I am probably watching at least some of the players on the field destroy their brain, slowly but evermore surely.
My original inclination after watching the film and doing some follow-up reading was that the NFL was a ‘dead league walking.’ I saw no way for it to continue operating indefinitely, perhaps with only a couple decades left. I am not alone in that view, but it is no doubt a questionable one. How can the multi-billion-dollar juggernaut that is the NFL ever fall?
“If ten percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.” That’s the reply Dr. Bennet Omalu, portrayed by Will Smith in “Concussion,” received from a league doctor after presenting his findings to the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee that football was directly linked to brain damage.
Omalu, a neuropathologist, was the first doctor to diagnose an NFL player with CTE after discovering Hall of Fame center “Iron Mike” Webster’s brain had shriveled from Alzheimer’s, leading to his death at 50 in 2002. The NFL largely ignored Omalu’s findings until Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was diagnosed with CTE after his 2009 death from an unrelated cause at 26. Henry was the first still-active NFL player to be diagnosed with the condition.
I wonder how right the league doctor who threatened Omalu with the demise of football will prove to be. At least in one part of the country, high school football is going nowhere.
“Seasons turned and turned again/‘Till they become ‘remember when?’”
I grew up in north Texas, also known as high school football-powerhouse-central. At least a couple of times each season, my alma mater, Coppell High School, will sellout it’s 10,000 seat capacity at Buddy Echols Field — modest, when compared to the 18,000 seats at Allen High School’s $60 million Eagle Stadium.
At a recent Washington Capitals game, I had a chat with former NHL right winger Alan May about the recent UIL realignment. For those I just lost, May is now an NHL analyst for Comcast living in Frisco, Texas and the UIL is Texas’s high school sports governing body. When the UIL realigns high school divisions every two years, it is statewide news.
May seemed thrilled about Frisco’s eight high schools getting district 13-5A all to themselves and the district’s agreed upon use of the Dallas Cowboys’ new practice facilities within the Dallas suburb. If the Texas high school football bug can bite a Canadian-born retired NHL player, it can bite anyone.
Last year being an exception, the state championship games have been played in AT&T Stadium. Every Friday, local news stations cover games around the Metroplex, from the morning pep rallies to the final score. Dozens of head coaches make six figures, and most don’t teach any classes.
There’s nothing so far to suggest that the high school talent pool is shrinking or that high school football is on the decline.
A prevailing theory is that it is really only NFL players at serious risk of CTE and that only repetitive concussions can cause it. That might generally be the case, but it is not absolute.
Owen Thomas, a lineman at UPenn, hanged himself at 21. Doctors discovered CTE, which is linked to depression and impulsive behavior, among other symptoms, in Thomas’ brain yet Thomas had never been diagnosed with a concussion. It is presumed that the repetitiveness of sub-concussive hits can cause CTE — no concussions required. Whoever can figure out how to take sub-concussive hits out of football, the ones produced every – single – play, the NFL might like to hear from you.
The victims can be younger, still. High schooler Eric Pelly was 18 when he died after suffering two concussions which “no one who saw them happen thought [were] life-threatening,” according to a Rolling Stone article on his death.
Eric’s brain had “clumps” of CTE.
“Everything and nothing has changed/Nothing has changed.”
There’s an ever-expanding list of current and former players who have said they wouldn’t want their kids (real or hypothetical) to play the game. Among them are Mike Ditka, Jermichael Finley, Troy Aikman, Adrian Peterson, Terry Bradshaw, Kurt Warner, Brett Favre…the list goes on.
We have reached a point where suicidal former players who know there is something wrong with their brains are choosing to shoot themselves in the chest so their brain can be examined — among them Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, both who were diagnosed with CTE.
There’s an argument on the other side that can be hard to dodge, but we will eventually have to move past it:
The players know what they are getting into. It is their choice whether or not to risk their health.
Then why not give consenting MMA fighters gladiator swords?
Football is a game. Players have wives, sons and daughters and lives to live. There is no game worth the death penalty. Whether that death comes on the field or from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, a game is not worth it. I love football and I’ll be watching Cam and Peyton on Sunday. But that only pushes the conversation back one more season. One day, we will be asking ourselves when we have had enough.
Everything has changed, nothing has changed.