Like many people, my introduction to the brain disease C.T.E. was the 2015 movie Concussion. In the movie, Will Smith plays a Nigerian doctor named Bennet Omalu who discovered that NFL players basically have their own form of brain damage. Naturally, the NFL tried to discredit his research, called for him to retract some of his work and withheld their knowledge of the subject from the players for as long as they could get away with. The NFL fought Dr. Omalu for years before officially acknowledging C.T.E. in 2009. Earlier this week, the NY Times reported on a study that claims 110 of the 111 NFL brains examined tested positive for C.T.E.
C.T.E. killed one of my favorite players. As I explained in a tribute to him on Big Chief's Sports Blog back in 2012, I used to spend hours playing as Junior Seau in Backyard Football 2002 on my grandma's P.C. Later in real life, Seau came to my hometown New England Patriots and was a captain during their 2007 undefeated regular season. He was an all-time great player with money, fame, family, and a successful charity. And he still killed himself.
He didn't just randomly kill himself either. He took the time to think it through. He shot himself in the chest because he wanted to leave his brain intact so that scientists could study it. He was 43 then and would be 48 today if he were still alive.
Another all-time great, who is fortunately still with us, said he would have never played football if he knew how much he was putting his health at risk. That man is L.A. Raiders legend Bo Jackson, one of the greatest athletes to ever live. Here are his views on football now that he is looking at the game from the outside. The quotes come from an interview with USA Today.
“If I knew back then what I know now,’’ said Jackson, “I would have never played football. Never. I wish I had known about all of those head injuries, but no one knew that. And the people that did know that, they wouldn’t tell anybody.
“The game has gotten so violent, so rough. We’re so much more educated on this CTE stuff, there’s no way I would ever allow my kids to play football today."
“Even though I love the sport, I’d smack them in the mouth if they said they wanted to play football."
“I’d tell them, 'Play baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, just anything but football.’ ’’
Jackson and Seau are far from the only cases. You can find as many depressing stories as your pain tolerance can handle. Some guys are getting out now while still they can.
I'm not bringing this up because I hate football. I'm bringing it up because I love football. I'd be lying to you if I said I was going to stop watching the Patriots or any of the primetime NFL or college matchups. I know C.T.E. destroys people from the inside. I also know that come February I will be at someone's Super Bowl party eating wings and nachos.
It's a terrible attitude to have. I am not proud of myself for it. But at the same time, I know I watch football and play Madden. I hope they can find a way to make the game safer but the truth is that the game is inherently violent and I'm going to watch even if they don't change anything.
It's a weird dynamic. I understand that the information on C.T.E. is now available to the players and it's their choice to play but I still feel bad for them. Even the worst player on an NFL roster is still one of the best in the world at what he does. They put in so much hard work. Weights, conditioning, film, practice, games, all on top of schoolwork until they reach the pro level. Too many of them end up squandering their money. Then there's the risk that even if you preserve the money, your health won't allow you to enjoy it. Dave Duerson is one such case.
And yet, we watch. Football brings people together. I call up my friends and we order takeout and watch the game. My mom sends me pictures of the different snacks she makes for the family back home. Colleges schedule their homecomings around the big game.
It's not going to change any time soon. Football is entrenched deep within American culture. Watching football is what we do on Saturdays and Sundays. The occasional Monday and Thursday too, depending on the matchup. Just remember that the biggest matchup we all face is mortality, and football can push some of the most talented and driven people in the world toward facing it early. Some say the money and glory is worth it. I'm kinda glad I wasn't talented enough to make that choice on my own.