Football’s dirty secret

North Wind Staff

Last Sunday, as thousands of fans packed into Levi’s Stadium to watch the 50th Super Bowl, the opening events carried on with great fanfare.

Past MVPs from Super Bowls of yore paraded onto the field one by one, each to thunderous applause—or a few harsh boos in Tom Brady’s case. Through happy smiles they formed a long row, but something seemed amiss. Many of these former players, both young and old, displayed an unsteady gait indicative of many hard seasons in the gridiron.re-NWLogoSocialMedia

Only in recent years has the dark side of professional sports gained a pulse as a topic of discussion outside of the occasional medical conference. A groundbreaking 2009 article by GQ writer Jeanne Marie Laskas blew the lid off the sad world of traumatic brain injury in football players, eventually inspiring the production of last year’s Hollywood film ‘Concussion.’ President Barack Obama himself said three years ago that if he’d had a son, he would have to deeply consider whether he would allow him to play football.

What many fans don’t know, however, is how their team favorite might end up like former Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Mike Webster, a man with four Super Bowl rings, who died at the age of 50 with such severe brain damage that he forgot how to feed himself, frequently urinated in his oven and treated his chronic back pain with a storebought Taser gun. He was living in a truck when he was found deceased in 2002.

The culprit: CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease which was originally found in boxers and is caused by repeated concussions. A recent study by Boston University found as many as 96 percent of former NFL players are afflicted with the disease.

Not only can it lead to debilitating illness, CTE can also cause impulsive and aggressive behavior to manifest in formerly stable people—with extremely disturbing outcomes. In 2012, 12-time Pro Bowler
Junior Seau died after placing a shotgun to his chest, a manner identical to former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, who ended his life a year before. Duerson had suspected something was changing in his brain, and selected his method of suicide so that his brain could be examined for CTE.

Football is an American icon in this country, a national sport beloved by millions. The answer is not to do away with the game, but player safety should be paramount. A comprehensive plan for offering support and treatment to players as they retire and leave the game would be a start.

Finally, the most important change needs to come in the form of support from the community of fans who make the game a big part of their lives.

If we can de-stigmatize getting treatment for mental health issues, more players may be compelled to come forward to get help. Without a major paradigm shift in thinking among fans, there can be no meaningful change.