Out for the Season, Out for Life

  • By John Yarchoan '13
  • jyarchoan13@amherst.edu

Volume XXXIV, Issue 3, December 14, 2012

Anyone who grew up watching NFL football will be familiar with the name Junior Seau. A twelve-time Pro Bowl player and the face of the San Diego Chargers franchise during the 1990s, Seau was generally regarded as one of the most dynamic, passionate defensive players of his era. He was also known for his charisma and celebrity status off the field; in addition to several business ventures, Seau created the Junior Seau Foundation to educate and empower low-income young people and directed large portions of his salary every year to the foundation.
On May 2, 2012, Junior Seau, 43, shot himself in the chest. News of the suicide sent shockwaves throughout the sports world. How could someone who ostensibly had it all—adoring fans, money, good looks, an upbeat outlook—suffer such an unbecoming end?
For scientists who have been studying the effects of repeated head trauma on brain chemistry, the story of Junior Seau is not terribly out of the ordinary. What continues to emerge out of this research is a very simple reality: Contemporary football is not safe for its participants.
The list of NFL players who have gruesomely and sometimes very symbolically taken their own lives is growing at an alarming pace. Consider the case of Dave Duerson, a hard-hitting defensive back who lobbied Congress about the dangers of football after his retirement from the sport and texted the following to his ex-wife before shooting himself in the head: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” Just last week, Jovan Belcher, a starting linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, shot his wife and then drove to the Chiefs practice facility and shot himself in front of his head coach.
While we cannot say for sure if Belcher was suffering from the same condition afflicting the other players, it has become impossible to ignore the haunting research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In a recent study performed at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, 34 out of the 35 brains of deceased former NFL football players showed signs of CTE. While it is hard to know how much head trauma is necessary to trigger CTE, consider that an 18-year-old multi-sport athlete in a different study revealed mild symptoms of CTE.  
According to scientists, major concussions that sideline players for extended periods of time are not actually the primary concern. More problematic are the repeated smaller traumas (“sub-concussions”) typical of contact sports over an extended period of time. When the brain is not given enough time to recover from these sub-concussions, an abnormal protein called tau builds up in the brain tissue. Tau protein has also been well-documented in patients of Alzheimer’s disease. In the final stage of CTE, patients have large-scale brain tissue degeneration and what amounts to effectively full-blown dementia. The headaches, memory loss, aggression, confusion, and depression that accompany this descent into dementia are typical for the now large amount of former professional athletes who have had their post-mortem brains studied.
As a loyal fan of the NFL, I do not consider it unreasonable to ask what type of role we as an audience have in this epidemic. While the NFL has recently admitted (after previously denying) that head trauma is a problem in its sport, the challenge that CTE poses to the league is not one that can be isolated to certain types of hits or certain rules. Instead, CTE poses an existential problem for modern football as we know it. After all, what would football be without offensive and defensive lines battling for inches in the trenches? Without tackling?
As enlightened, progressive people, we would shudder at the thought of something akin to the gladiators from ancient Rome existing in our society. And yet, in light of the evidence of CTE, is the enjoyment we receive from watching football, boxing, or ice hockey really that different from what we know of gladiator fights, in which citizens would pay to watch volunteers and slaves risk their lives for glory in the arena? Professional football careers are known to be particularly short in length, and in many cases players have no career options other than hoping that they make it in the league.  Is it enough that players know the risks associated with playing?
And another dimension: What can be said of Amherst and its football or ice hockey programs? Again, is it enough that players are aware of the risks inherent in the sport? It seems to me that Amherst has as much of a responsibility in this epidemic as any other organization generating revenues at the expense of the brain health of its players. Just as the NFL has a strong incentive to continue to provide football in its least altered form, Amherst has an incentive to field competitive football teams that inspire older alumni to contribute to the school. In this arrangement, institutional changes have to come from elsewhere—they certainly will not come from players who feel passionate about their team, and they are also unlikely to come from financially motivated trustees.
These are difficult questions to reconcile, but we should recognize that there may come a day when the evidence of widespread CTE is simply too damning to ignore. In that case, it may fall on all of us—the consumers of this profitable and yet clearly harmful presentation—to speak out for a generation of young people who have yet to watch the Junior Seaus and Dave Duersons of their day.

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