Liam Day wonders how long we can continue ignoring the mounting evidence that football damages players’ brains.
I think it’s safe to say that this falls into one of those categories of things we might reasonably list under “duh”. A post-mortem examination of Junior Seau’s brain has determined that the former NFL great had experienced significant brain injury, what is called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), before committing suicide last spring.
The Good Men Project discussed the tragedy at length when it occured. (You can read about it here and here.) I will not rehash what I said then, my belief that parents who sign their children up to play football at as young an age as 5 are borderline negligent. What I would like to discuss is the evidence of a problem that continues to mount and our society’s willful refusal to acknowledge it because it might mean disturbing the status quo.
Even before Seau’s post-mortem told us what we could already guess, a new study came out just last month demonstrating more clearly than ever the link between repeated mild head traumas that are par for the course in a sport like football and the brain’s degeneration. The study took posthumous brain samples from 85 people who had experienced repeated hits to the head while still alive. These people included, among others, military veterans and athletes. 68 of them, including the samples of almost all the athletes, had evidence of CTE, whose symptoms include depression and dementia. The correlation is overwhelming.
Of course, correlation is not causation and, as Eric Adelson stresses in a column at Yahoo! Sports, the science linking CTE to football is still very young and it is not possible to draw a straight line from the hits to the head Seau endured to the CTE that has now been diagnosed to the suicide he committed. It’s also important to stress, as Adelson does in his article, that suicide is not an inevitable consequence of CTE, as it is too easy to imply in sensationalistic headlines.
Yet, with every passing story, evidence mounts that the dotted lines we’ve started to draw between the hits to football players’ heads and CTE is becoming more and more solid. It reminds me a little of the debate over global warming. Every December we read headlines, as we did again this December, that the preceding year was the hottest on record or that the number of extraordinary meteorological events the highest, but the science of global warming is still in its infancy. So we are allowed to ignore the circumstantial evidence that is mounting because to examine it would force us to question the status quo.
No, we cannot definitively link football to CTE, but we can say that a degree of probability exists between playing football and suffering from the effects of CTE and in light of the fact that the probability exists we should, at the very least, not be pushing for more football. Thankfully, Commissioner Goodell seems to have taken the idea of an 18-game NFL regualr season off the discussion table, though talk continues to percolate about adding teams, and thus games, to the playoffs, which is precisely what the NCAA is doing by caving to fan, media, and corporate pressure.
You would think that, if anyone were to understand the need to resist football’s expansion, it would be the college and university presidents who, presumably, are aware of and understand the growing body of science, can grapple with the ethical and philosophical questions football’s existence necessarily begs, and have been tasked with nurturing the academic development of the student-athletes in their care. Perhaps, now, finally, we can put to rest the ruse that the young men who strap on pads and helmets every Saturday during the fall for the old Local U. are anything but athletes and should be paid as such. For—and here the science needs to be pushed to examine football’s younger participants—at least the men who play in the NFL are rewarded, often generously, for the risks they run.
And, of course, I don’t excuse my own behavior, which is hypocritical. I watched the BCS National Championship last week and I will be heading out to the bar later with friends to watch the Patriots in the AFC Divisional round of the playoffs. But that’s what I mean about willful ignorance. Football, particularly the Tom Brady-led Patriots, provides me entertainment. I am invested in the status-quo. I see the headlines and understand the implications and, still, I keep watching. How many more headlines, how many more post-mortems, how many more studies confirming what we already know will it take before I stop watching?