Today is a fall Sunday in the US and this afternoon about a thousand large and muscular men are going to spend three hours pounding the stuffing out of each other to the cheers of the crowd. What is becoming increasingly clear is that with each hit, the players are receiving brain injuries that down the road will lead to many of them suffering from symptoms akin to dementia. I wrote about this before (see here and here) but now more disturbing stories are coming to light.
Three more football players have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease the onset of which is believed to be triggered by the repeated concussions football players receive. Earlier diagnoses were based on autopsies of those who were deceased but now they seem to have a developed a diagnostic tool that can be used on living players.
What grabbed my attention is that one of the three is running back Tony Dorsett. He is the only professional football player with whom I have even the remotest connection though I have never met him. I have been to just one football game in my life. That was decades ago and the only player I recall seeing play is Dorsett. It was sad to hear him describe his life now.
The former Cowboys running back, now 59, said that when he took his Oct. 21 flight from Dallas to Los Angeles for testing, he repeatedly struggled to remember why he was aboard the plane and where he was going. Such episodes, he said, are commonplace when he travels.
Dorsett said he also gets lost when he drives his two youngest daughters, ages 15 and 10, to their soccer and volleyball games.
“I’ve got to take them to places that I’ve been going to for many, many, many years, and then I don’t know how to get there,” he said.
The 1976 Heisman Trophy winner and eighth all-time leading NFL rusher said he has trouble controlling his emotions and is prone to outbursts at his wife and daughters.
“It’s painful, man, for my daughters to say they’re scared of me.” After a long pause, he tearfully reiterated, “It’s painful.”
Dorsett said doctors have told him he is clinically depressed.
“I’ve thought about crazy stuff, sort of like, ‘Why do I need to continue going through this?’” he said. “I’m too smart of a person, I like to think, to take my life, but it’s crossed my mind.”
Dorsett’s case may cause particular concern because he was not an offensive or defensive lineman who are usually the people giving and taking the most number of hard hits on almost every play. He plays a so-called skills position and usually gets hit only when he has the ball. So the fact that even he seems to have CTE should be a real warning sign. Wide receiver Mark Duper, another skills position player, has also developed signs of the disease. Quarterback Jim McMahon is another skills player who is reporting symptoms of CTE, according to this report that says that Ridley Scott is planning to make a film in which football concussions play a major role. Some of these players are showing signs in their early fifties.
The problem is that unlike other dangerous activities where the risks are readily apparent, the downside in football manifests itself slowly and much later, the way smoking does. So players may not fully appreciate the risks they are taking or, again like smokers, gamble that they will somehow escape the consequences.
I really don’t know how you can prevent these injuries without changing football completely from the type of game that the fans seem to want and makes the NFL a ton of money. And yet it seems really cruel to encourage people to risk their lives this way, however good the money or adulation is in the short term.
I have a colleague whose son has a football scholarship to college and I discussed this topic with her. He is a natural athlete who was very good at baseball too in high school but he gave that up for the glamor of football. She says that she worries about him and well she might. The best thing to happen to him might be what he thinks is the worst, that he is judged to be not good enough for the pros.