By Jason Keidel
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An alarming — though should not be shocking — study was published last week regarding the overwhelming number of former NFL players who left the game with their brains swathed in CTE.
A team of Boston University researchers, including Ann McKee, a prominent neuropathologist, examined the brains of 202 former football players for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Over 90 percent were positive for CTE, including 110 out of 111 former NFL players.
First, let’s address some PR gibberish. The football apologists are saying that study was “biased.” Nonsense. Bias speaks to intent or collusion, a groupthink designed to attain a certain result. Dead brains don’t have bias. Granted, the brains were donated by concerned families who thought their loved ones suffered from post-football funks. But there was nothing shady or slanted about the results, which were obtained with medical objectivity.
At least two current players appear unfazed by the haunting numbers. Jets defensive backs Morris Claiborne and Jamal Adams just said they are willing to die on the field. Sounds perversely glamourous and romantic, like war stories, charging that bunker while being shredded by bullets.
But let’s stick with Adams, who, fairly or not, seems to be the young face of this sentiment and is getting most of the attention.
Such are the dreams and luxuries of being a kid, 21 years old with your life and career before you, each week a series of sunrises without sunsets. If you watch “Band of Brothers,” you wish you were with Easy Company in France on D-Day or in the frozen forest of Bastogne. If you’re a certain age and grew up on NFL Films, you saw the glorified violence of football’s Golden Age and wished you were a member of the Doomsday or No-Name defenses, or perhaps the Steel Curtain.
People applauded Adams. Likely those of his age and naivete. Death is only romantic the farther away you are from it. When we’re 22, we have fun with fantasy, of dying on the proverbial shield. Wait until your friend steps on a landmine. Or a teammate is paralyzed by a wayward blow to the head. Not so fun, funny or romantic then.
Nor is it cute to lose proper use of your limbs or your mind or to fade under the dim lights of dementia. If you read the sublime piece on Nick Buoniconti by S.L. Price in Sports Illustrated, you need not be a Dolphins fan to reach for the Kleenex after a few paragraphs.
It’s a shame these studies and this subject has made everyone so defensive. It seems you’re either an NFL shill and apologist who deflects to soccer, hockey and boxing whenever brain trauma is mentioned, or you’re a communist/pacifist who steps on the American flag every time you point to the breakneck speed and high-collision rates of pro football.
As someone who has adored football since birth, let’s make this clear: You can love football while pointing out the inherent perils of it. You can also be objective about its risks and not want to see it banned or altered in any profound way. Everyone admits football is the one team sport with a 100 percent injury rate. And sadly it seems it also is approaching unanimity in the brain damage department.
Just because your favorite former player looks great in the studio or broadcast booth, bulging in his new silk suit, articulate as ever, doesn’t mean he’s not going to stumble down the road of memory loss, mood swings, substance abuse or domestic violence. CTE doesn’t pop up overnight. You’re not doing great on Monday and then by Friday you forgot why you walked into the kitchen.
Tony Dorsett looked like a college athlete, like the young man who won the Heisman, well after his career. Now he wanders about his house without a clue and drives his car to places he doesn’t recognize. Heck, the smooth voice and absurdly handsome face of football for decades, Frank Gifford, was movie star handsome into his 70s. Only after his death did we discover he, too, had CTE.
The evidence does more than suggest football does brain damage. It almost assures it. Last week’s study showed that nearly 100 percent of the brains of former NFL players tested positive for CTE. Why is that blasphemous rather than instructive? Why are we so afraid of facts?
It’s a shame CTE can still only be detected posthumously. If there were a way to diagnose an athlete while alive, perhaps there would be a way to treat it. But it seems the only way to truly treat CTE is to avoid it. And the only way to do that is to not engage in violent sports. And, for better or worse, chief among them is football.
Adams amended his remarks Tuesday by saying that he only wanted to italicize his passion for football. Fair enough. Just be careful what you say. And, when it comes to a career in football, even more careful what you do.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel