I had to give up watching football. The growing awareness of players suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive blows, makes the game hard to watch.
This football season was the first since childhood that I did not participate in. I’ve never been a player and would never have described myself as a deeply invested fan. But like many Americans, I watched football every fall and winter weekend through the completion of the college and NFL seasons. Some of my clearest memories from childhood involve watching football, in person or on TV, often with my father, who himself never played and did not consider himself especially committed to the game. Still, it was a weekend ritual in our household.
That changed a year ago, when Emily Kelly, the wife of former New Orleans Saints safety Rob Kelly, wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times describing the progressive dementia her husband was experiencing in his early 40s. “But when all those big hits happened and the fans cheered, did they cheer despite knowing a man just greatly increased his risk for dementia?” she asked. And I had to ask myself, could I continue to follow and enjoy this sport? And the answer was no.
Just six months earlier, The New York Times also had published a bombshell article detailing the findings of post-mortem examinations of the brains of 111 former NFL players conducted at Boston University. Only one of the 111 didn’t have evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease linked to repetitive blows to the head. The disease has been associated with the dementia and cognitive difficulties experienced by many former players. It has been implicated in the suicide at age 43 of one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history, Junior Seau, and the homicidal behavior of Aaron Hernandez, a star tight end with New England who was released by the Patriots in 2013 after being charged with first-degree murder. Following conviction on that charge, he also was charged with two other murders and committed suicide in prison at age 27. His brain showed evidence of advanced CTE.
Accounts of other players afflicted with CTE seem to be appearing with greater frequency, including several players from Washington state. Most shocking, perhaps, was the suicide of Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hilinski just over a year ago. Several months earlier, former University of Washington great Daniel Te’o-Nesheim had died after several years of progressively erratic behavior and memory problems. The brains of both players showed signs of CTE. A growing number of living former NFL players have been candid about their struggles with cognitive and mood problems, troubling signs of possible CTE, including luminaries like Jim McMahon, Tony Dorsett and Brett Favre.
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The NFL’s response to this epidemic seems woefully inadequate. Much of the focus has been on preventing or limiting concussions, when the role of concussions in causing CTE is uncertain and there is evidence that repetitive trauma below the concussion threshold is the real culprit. Some measures have been instituted to protect quarterbacks, but less than 10 percent of the players posthumously diagnosed with CTE in the Boston University study were quarterbacks.
And the response of football fans also seems inadequate. I have no hard science to back this up, only my own personal experience. I’m a physician, and many of my social-media friends are also physicians or connected to medicine. If there has been any falloff in their devotion to football in the past few years, it hasn’t been detectable. The weekend postings from September until the Super Bowl are still dominated by football. And many of the people posting, I strongly suspect, would never allow their own children to play football.
So it’s been a lonely struggle, like being the only kid in middle school whose parents won’t allow him to go see the R-rated horror movie that everybody’s been raving about. What will be the situation a few years from now? As a physician, I have to hope that science and medicine will eventually prevail.