You have seen it on the TV before: four guys sit around a long black table, NFL scores rolling on the bottom of the screen. Three of them are icons, former football virtuosos that have been reduced to mostly unfounded opinions. The fourth guy is a broadcaster with a subtle TV smile that maintains an air of professionalism while the former gladiators snicker and yell like the high school students in the back of the classroom.
“Who is your pick for Lions vs. Vikings?” the broadcaster asks.
“Oh, you know I’m going for the Vikings.”
“The Vikings? Are you joking? The Vikings won’t be winning anything this year!”
“The Vikings aren’t going to be doing anything until Teddy Bridgewater gets back. Mark my words!”
The choir of anger finally re-collects itself, just long enough for the professional broadcaster to get off his next question.
“Is playing football worth risking losing your memory at age 50, severe depression, and onset of sudden violent tendencies?”
If that second question seems jarring compared to the first, then that should tell you something about the scope of just how challenging this is. America’s favorite source of escapism has been intoxicated with the knowledge that the big hits and broken tackles we have so long celebrated are also ruining lives.
Just this past week, experts at Boston University published a study that involved the donated brains of 111 NFL players, among others at the professional and college levels. As you have likely heard by now, 110 of those 111 players were found to have CTE—over 99 percent. Besides that, it was found in 3 out of fourteen high school players, and 48 of 53 collegiate players.
“Back when we played,” one commentator says. “When you had a concussion, you played through it. These kids today don’t know toughness like we did.”
It’s important to know that just because the result of this study was 99 percent, does not mean that 99 percent of retired NFL players have CTE. The brains in this study were donated by their players’ relatives, whom likely had already suspected there to be a problem if they agreed to donate a brain in the first place. As long as we can only diagnose CTE by observing the brain itself, we will probably never know the percentage of players who are suffering from it. We also do not yet know how often CTE shows up in brains of the general population.
With that said, this is an alarming study. According to The New York Times, the Boston University sample of players represents one tenth of NFL players who died since the study began. So we can very safely assume that the rate of CTE in NFL players is at least 9.9 percent—and that’s only if every brain that wasn’t donated is CTE-free, which seems unlikely.
“Look,” booms the former linebacker, “Football isn’t going anywhere. We’ve already eliminated helmet-to-helmet hits. Concussions are trending down. Maybe the game is a little less rough and tough for it, but it is safer.”
While it really can’t be argued that the NFL’s efforts to reduce concussions are a positive thing, it may not matter much. According to The Concussion Foundation, a bigger cause of CTE is repeated minor blows to the head. A normal person will experience these from time to time, whether it’s bumping their head on the roof of their car, or falling out of a bed. An NFL player experiences hundreds of these every year, along with the possibility of more severe concussions.
“These guys are making millions, though. Who wouldn’t want to make millions even if they are risking their brains? That’s just the price we pay!”
Lots of people, actually: Bo Jackson. Neil Smith abd Antwaan Randle El, just to name a few that have come out and publicly stated they regret ever stepping on the field. Think about that. It takes a religious work ethic to even make it to the NFL, and these are guys who had very successful careers. And now they are telling us that they would throw away everything that they accomplished to just have their brains back. How many people do you know that set incredibly lofty goals for themselves, achieved those goals, and now wish they never did it? How severe must the consequences of CTE be to make someone wish they never made their dream come true?
As American sports fans, we may long for the days when we were ignorant—when we thought that the most serious thing former NFL players were dealing with was knee pain, instead of suicide. But those days are gone, washed away by brutal empiricism. Now, it is our job to wrestle with what this means. It may mean telling our kids no, they can’t try out for the high school football team. It might even mean thinking twice before playing a game of pickup football. It might mean—no, we don’t want to talk about it…
The broadcaster looks directly at the camera, and his on-screen smile disappears.
He says: “How much longer can we watch this?”