Two of my older brothers played football for Armijo High School and when I started high school, my father expected and pressured me to play. But my interests were in writing and art. In many families there’s an expectation that the sons will play football.
I hope those parents will watch the documentary, “League of Denial,” on PBS.org or read the book of the same name by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada.
The documentary focuses on former NFL players who suffered concussions during their years of play and ended up with a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It’s a degenerative disease with symptoms such as memory loss, depression, aggression, confusion and dementia.
The documentary begins with the horrific case of former Pittsburgh Steelers All Pro Mike Webster, the first NFL player diagnosed with CTE after his death. Seeing his deformed body from years of gridiron wars as well as archival footage of interviews of him struggling to express himself is chilling.
In an old interview, former NFL linebacker Junior Seau says, “You have to sacrifice your body . . . When we are 50, 40 years old, we probably won’t be able to walk. That’s the sacrifice that you take to play this game.”
After Seau committed suicide last year at the age of 43, his brain was found to have CTE.
Neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee of the Boston University CTE Center has studied 46 brains of football players after their deaths and found 45 had CTE.
Unsurprisingly, the NFL has downplayed the problem. When the commissioner punts in an appearance before Congress, one can’t help but think of Big Tobacco denying the link between smoking and cancer. Especially when, in 2009, a New York Times reporter obtained an internal NFL study acknowledging the problem.
Earlier this year, the NFL settled a lawsuit brought by 4,500 former players for concussion-related injuries for $765 million. In the film, former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson (who played alongside Armijo grad George Martin) says, “The NFL has given everyone 765 million reasons why you don’t want to play football.”
But for those predicting the end of the NFL or football, that’s not going to happen. The NFL will earn north of $9 billion this year. Couple that with the millions of dollars college football generates and there’s no way this golden goose is going to be cooked even with the risk of brain damage.
For most players, it’s worth the risk. Even after his career was shortened by concussions, former Dallas Cowboy Troy Aikman says he wouldn’t discourage his son from playing. The Patriots’ Tom Brady told reporters, “I don’t think about it at all. I’m not overly concerned.” Several other current players and coaches have blown off the findings.
The most disturbing part of this documentary was when Dr. McKee found CTE in the brains of a 21-year-old college football player with no history of concussions and an 18-year-old player who died after his fourth concussion. If the repetitive hits are damaging kids’ brains, shouldn’t parents know that and factor that in before allowing their children to play? Parents of young football players need to see this film.
I love football. My 8-year-old grandson just wrapped up a season of playing tackle football. I wanted him to take karate instead but it wasn’t my call. I hope he takes up tae kwon do next year. Peace.
Kelvin Wade is the author of “Morsels” Vols. I and II and lives in Fairfield. Email him at email@example.com.