Just peruse any newspaper and in the sports section you will inevitably find an article lamenting some aspect of the “concussion debate” in US Football. In September 2002 a Pittsburg Steelers former center, and Super Bowl Champion, Mike Webster died of a heart attack. According to an article on NPR, Webster was a local hero and the city of Pittsburg was shocked when his whole life fell apart. No more money. An end to his marriage. Spending nights at the bus terminal. His body ended up in the Allegheny County Coroner’s office. This was the turning point in the concussion debate. A young pathologist, Bennet Omalu, made an on the spot decision to make a study of Webster’s brain. What he found was staggering. Webster had a disease that would be called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The disease can cause the behavioral changes that afflicted Webster. Omalu was certain the CTE came from repeated pounding on the football field. If he thought this information was going to be welcomed by the NFL he was disastrously wrong.
The NFL formed its own committee to research brain trauma. Their findings were published in the medical journal, Neurosurgery
, "They publish in that journal repeatedly over the period of several years, papers that really minimize the dangers of concussions. They talk about [how] there doesn't appear to be any problem with players returning to play. They even go so far as to suggest that professional football players do not suffer from repetitive hits to the head in football games. Over the last decade, the NFL has repeatedly avoided tying football to brain damage, even as it has given disability payments to former players with dementia-related conditions.”
You would think that the information on the health problems facing NFL players would deter fans from the sport or at least make them think twice about their support of the game. Across the board the answer comes back, ‘They chose this life,’ ‘They get paid millions of dollars to play’-as if that somehow diminishes their suffering...the money they make. Let’s take a look at Mike Webster. He was a Super Bowl champion. He had it all. And because of the game he was paid to play...he eventually lost it all. Even what really matters most...his family and all to soon his life. There is no difference in the value of human life. The amount of money we make doesn’t minimize suffering.
In his book, League of Denial
, author Mark Fainaru-Wada writes of the death of Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson. A pillar of the football union who was trying to keep retired players from getting their disability payments. After years of denying that this was an issue and the NFL was turning into a league of sissies...he ends up committing suicide. And left a note.
"My mind slips. Thoughts get crossed. Cannot find my words. Major growth on the back of skull on lower left side. Feel really alone. Thinking of other NFL players with brain injuries. Sometimes, simple spelling becomes a chore, and my eyesite goes blurry ... I think something is seriously damaged in my brain, too. I cannot tell you how many times I saw stars in games, but I know there were many times that I would 'wake up' well after a game, and we were all at dinner."
And on the last page...”Please see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank"
-He shot himself in the chest to preserve his brain. It was found to have CTE.
It’s a $10 Billion industry. Changes are being made in an effort to make it safer. But as Farinaru-Wada points out whether it can be safer or not is a whole other question. Violence is part and parcel of the game but writing off the dangers associated with it is beyond callous. Players are dying in incredibly macabre ways. Drinking antifreeze or driving their trucks into a tanker truck at 100 miles an hour. Denying this will not make it go away.
At what point does the player cease to be “at fault” or “responsible” for health conditions that are a direct result of the game? When does responsibility shift to coaches and commissioners and committees who blatantly deny any such problems? They play for our enjoyment and all to often, when they outlive their usefulness, they are cast aside to live out their days plagued by after effects of the game.