It is hard to dismiss the overwhelming evidence of footballs’ hold on American culture. It’s equal parts modesty and showmanship, fast paced and instant replay, gritty and resolute, and the aggressive action is wildly entertaining, albeit brute. Yet, for over the last 100 years, the game has changed, the players have grown exponentially. The sport has become a big business money maker from its first Super Bowl on January 15, 1967 between Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, to advertising sponsorships, college scholarships, endorsements, gear, and, yes, the all-consuming tailgate parties.
According to 2014 and 2016 Harris Polls, Football is the most popular sport played and watched in America, with Major League Baseball ranking a close second. Rugby football, association football, or what it is best known for in America, football, had its first kick of the oval-shaped ball in the 1800’s, and although the name and nature of the game has diversified, the interest in the sport remains constant.
However, it is important to note that the rationale behind the fanaticism is not as obvious or cut and dry as one may assume. Demographics are a factor in the statistics:
- Rural areas of the U.S. love the sport more than people who live in urban areas.
- Incomes below $100K are more likely to favor the sport than those who earn above $100K.
- Football is not gender-specific; women enjoy the sport as much as men.
- An equal number of whites love the sport as blacks.
- College football ranks third, after professional baseball.
Today’s football isn’t just a game; it’s a corporate conglomerate with crossover potential because of the mass appeal. Nevertheless, despite the sensationalism, mascots, and provocative lure of fame and fortune, overall, the reviews are mixed; the growing evidence that concussions and other head traumas can alter or end an athlete’s life are the reasons behind football’s changing perception.
Mike Webster, former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs played for the teams during 1974 – 1990. Throughout his career, he suffered traumatic head injuries, a decline in mental and personality capacity, and physical pain. Although he had signs and symptoms that mimicked dementia, the root cause of his illness was a mystery. This disease without a name, diagnosis, or specific medication to end or alleviate the pain and erratic behavior left him depressed. He lived a dysfunctional life that spiraled out of his control, and alienated him from his family, and everything familiar became unfamiliar obstacles.
Webster lost the ability to care for himself and was unable to think and act constructively, and after his wife filed for divorce, with nothing left to sustain him, he succumbed to the warring factions of mind versus body. Eventually, he became homeless and alternated between living in his truck in his home state of Pennsylvania and in a train station in Wisconsin. Mike desperately sought relief from isolation and his erratic behavior through use and abuse of prescription drugs administered by his physician. Mike also used a Taser in an attempt to find comfort in his uncomfortable world. He eventually died of a heart attack in 2002
In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist and forensic pathologist examined the brain tissue of Mike Webster. After extensive research, he discovered that, although a heart attack was the initial cause of death for Mike Webster, his dementia and Alzheimer’s-like symptoms were the result of years of repeated brain trauma, concussions, and asymptomatic head injuries that he endured while playing pro football. The official, though disputed diagnosis was Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or better known by the acronym ‘CTE’. The relationship between football, concussions, and CTE, gave credibility to investigate the deaths of other athletes whose ‘sportsmanship’ included repetitive, traumatic blows to the head, the lifetime of complications they experienced, and whether or not the cause of death can be diagnosed as CTE.
CTE has put into perspective the National Football Leagues’ integrity, and how the multi-million dollar advertising/sponsorships, profits, and contractual agreements between team owners and the league, are more important than the players who invariably, unwittingly commit to signing their lives and mental aptitude away. It’s the battle of money versus the marginalization of the men who genuinely love, and play the sport. It is a watershed moment that notes the dichotomy between the support, encouragement, and spirited courtship before and during the draft, followed by the exhilaration of silence and proposed ignorance after the glory fizzles and the men leave the field mentally battered and discombobulated. Can we project that their lives only matter when the men are healthy and vibrant on and off the field? How many men have to harm themselves, families, or significant others before the league considers the facts of CTE? Scientific evidence of its existence—and the irreversible damage of the disease—are real.
Football’s popularity has transformed the lives of many players, on and off the field. There are retired athletes who have successfully maneuvered across the 50-yard line and are thriving in business and entertainment endeavors. We can surmise that they are healthy, living their lives without any debilitating brain injuries, or physical/psychological barriers. It is an unfortunate yet sad truth that there are many men whose careers do not end as happily or productive or are able to support themselves. Concussions and other injuries in football are a given; it goes with the territory of the sport. Is it also a given that the men who play the sport will be left to handle the disease alone without the support of the league? Is perseverance in spite of pain and injury, regardless of the physical and emotional limitations – the mantra of the National Football League? Are the men the unfortunate, insignificant victims of circumstance? Concussions and CTE separate men from their soul. The weightiness and ramifications of the disease not only affects the man, but his entire family, yet the ‘business’ of football continues to touch down.
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