The Cloud Over Football

Because modern players are bigger and faster, they may be inflicting even worse brain damage on each other.

A few weeks ago, a 25-year-old man was found in his car in Tampa, Fla., dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It was a sad but ordinary story except for two facts: The man, O.J. Murdock, was a wide receiver for the NFL's Tennessee Titans, and the wound was not to the head but the chest.

Exactly why Murdock killed himself is impossible to know. But his case inevitably brings to mind other former NFL players who committed suicide -- particularly Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears. He feared he was suffering from brain damage and shot himself in the heart for a considered reason: He wanted his brain intact so it could be assessed for illness.

It was, and The Chicago Tribune reported, "Scientists at Boston University who examined Duerson's brain tissue said he suffered from a 'moderately advanced' case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head."

This is the first weekend of the NFL regular season, which follows closely on the opening of the NCAA schedule, and it brings with it some of the most cherished rites of fall. But this year, it carries with it a sense that the sport's best days are over. The most popular spectator sport in America may be no match for the revelations of medical science.

One of those came Wednesday from a study of more than 3,400 professional football players who had played at least five years in the league. Their death rate from three grave brain diseases -- Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's -- was triple the normal rate.

"It is very appropriate to say that what these guys in the study died of is likely CTE," said Robert Stern, a neurology professor who co-founded the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.

But the news is even worse than it sounds. Many of the subjects played in the NFL decades ago, and Stern said that because modern players are bigger and faster, they may be inflicting even worse brain damage on each other.

The stark truth is that shots to the head turn out to be unhealthy for the brain, and such blows are to football what running is to basketball: something that happens every play. Concussions were once thought to be the main risk, but experts have established that CTE can occur even in players with no history of multiple concussions.

It's a progressive disease, with no known cure, and its effects are grim -- including "memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia," according to the BU center.

What does this mean for the future of football, professional or otherwise? It can't be good. To begin with, some parents are bound to bar, or at least steer, their sons from the game. Even some NFL players share that impulse.

"I don't want my son to play football," New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott told the New York Daily News. Former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said he wants his sons to avoid the game that made him rich and famous.

As the known casualties mount, fans may also recoil or drift away in search of less destructive forms of entertainment. It's not so much fun to savor a spectacular hit once you confront the insidious harm it can do to a player's most vital organ.

Players and fans have always accepted the risk of broken bones and torn ligaments. An epidemic of irreversible, devastating mental decline will be harder to discount.

Even if parents and fans don't care, there are people who will: trial lawyers and juries. More than 2,000 NFL alumni are already suing the league, accusing it of "actively concealing the risks players faced from repetitive impacts." Colleges and high schools will find legal bills raising the price of an expensive sport. A few big damage awards could upend the sport.

Walter Olson, a liability expert at the Cato Institute who founded the blog Overlawyered, told me, "My reading is that if the same legal principles that are applied to other industries are applied, football either goes away or gets transformed into a very different game."

For the moment, football will go on as always, beloved as always. But like a player who has just had his teeth rattled, it may be at the start of an inexorable journey to an unwanted destination.

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  • Mr Whipple||

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  • Jordan||

    "Firsters" are the worst kind of troll.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    He's going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theater.

  • ||

    Night Sweetie!

  • Mr Whipple||

    Let 'em play without helmets and pads, like in rugby. American football players are punk ass bitchez compared to rugby players.

  • ||

    Or rugby league, although both codes have gotten a bit soft. Bring back the biff!

    Behold the glory days: John Sattler captains Souths to a grand final victory playing most of the match with a broken jaw

  • Jerry on the road||

    It would upset the liberal fantasy world in which helmets and other protective gear always make for a safer sport.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    How many rugby players played the entire season last year (including the playoffs into the championship game) with a torn ligament in their leg? And then did they play the championship with a torn ligament in their other leg too?

  • John||

    Shut up. Rugby players always claim that. But then few if any of them have ever played football. Having played both sports, I don't find rubby to be any tougher than football. In fact it is in many ways less tough. You can't block in rugby. Thus you are in no danger of being hit if you don't have the ball. The day some rugby player has to worry about being blindsided and leveled away from the ball, come talk to me.

  • Killazontherun||

    This. You can tell when you are dealing with some sports hater who doesn't even understand the game because they focus on the brawn and brutality and yelp, 'rugby or Australian rules players are tougher!' The appeal of football is the fact that it is stopped every down so the teams can strategize over the next move. It doesn't take very many synapses to kick a ball in one general direction, but someone with some brains has to coordinate the decision making in American football. Soccer and rugby don't function at the same level of abstraction. Your typical hater of football was while growing up a hopped up kid with ADD who couldn't pay attention long enough to understand the game who now rationalizes his hate instead of taking the time to understand. You're grown up now, there is no need to hate.

  • Willis||

    Maybe, but the ironic thing about that statement is that it takes more patience to watch soccer or baseball and more patience to understand football.

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    "hate" twice and "haters" twice.
    How old are you? 12?

    Also, you don't grasp soccer at all.

  • IceTrey||

    In rugby there's no blocking, you have to tackle between the shoulders and the waist and there is no passing. All of this is allowed in American football which is why pads are worn. Most people don't realize the main reason for wearing a football helmet is to protect against the head hitting the ground, not other players.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    It's not so much fun to savor a spectacular hit once you confront the insidious harm it can do to a player's most vital organ.

    I take it you're not a fan of the 'sweet science' of boxing?

  • ||

    Boxing doesn't endanger a man's most vital organ, because you can't punch below the belt

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I feel so othered and microagressed.

  • Mike M.||

    Meh, this has been an issue since the days of the flying wedge and Teddy Roosevelt forcing the game to clean up its play.

    American football isn't going anywhere. But I wouldn't be surprised one iota if phony baloney libertarian Steve Chapman would secretly like to see the game banned.

  • Killazontherun||

    How that nanny Teddy Roosevelt didn't die a death by bonfire while tied to a stake is a mystery to me. He met all the criteria to be labeled a witch. 1) annoying, 2) asshole, 3) impervious to bullets.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Progrlodytes getting their panties in a twist over football is just another sign of their disconnect from reality.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    "It is very appropriate to say that what these guys in the study died of is likely CTE," said Robert Stern, a neurology professor who co-founded the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University

    Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.

  • DJF||

    Never ask a real estate agent if its a good time to buy or sell a house.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Never eat spinach with a stranger.

  • Mike M.||

    Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    Never ask a bunch of brain-damaged football fans whether blows to the head are an impediment to critical thinking.

  • R C Dean||

    Did I miss the part where they were autopsied, and this professor (who appears to lack a medical degree, not to mention being boarded in pathology or neurology) reviewed the findings?

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    Did I miss the part where they were autopsied, and this professor (who appears to lack a medical degree, not to mention being boarded in pathology or neurology) reviewed the findings?

    Yes, you did miss that part. But did you see that he started a center that studies this; did you? And those grants are not going to write themselves.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    It's pretty surprising to me that people engaging in a contact sport have more injuries than those who don't.

    "My reading is that if the same legal principles that are applied to other industries are applied, football either goes away or gets transformed into a very different game."

    Whatever happened to assumption of the fucking risk? Are we really going to pretend these guys didn't know the risk to their brains, knees, joints, etc?

  • ||

    That is the key thing in the lawsuit by former players. They are claiming that the NFL had a big cover-up and buried the medical data saying football players are more prone to concussion-related injuries, and I'm thinking to myself, "No shit, Sherlock!"

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    If they didn't understand that football players are more prone to concussion-related injuries, such an injury could only help their mental faculties. It just doesn't pass the laugh test... which doesn't mean that a group of dimwits on a jury won't go after the deep pockets.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    And people did not know smoking was bad for their health? The NFL is in the sights of the trial lawyers.

  • ||

    which doesn't mean that a group of dimwits on a jury won't go after the deep pockets.

    Raises the chances, if anything.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Whatever happened to assumption of the fucking risk? Are we really going to pretend these guys didn't know the risk to their brains, knees, joints, etc?

    Their knees, joints, back--yeah, I think it's pretty safe to assume they knew the risks there.

    But traumatic brain injury is a whole different sort of thing because you're looking at functioning on the most basic of levels on a day-to-day basis. People are lot more cognizant of the long-term impacts of that type of injury now. It used to be that if you got concussed in a game situation, unless you were completely blacked out they'd give you some smelling salts and throw you back out there with no thought as to the long-term health consequences of repeated blows to the head--because it was just assumed that having that helmet on reduced the severity of any injury. That's not the case anymore. It's hard to look at guys like Mike Webster and John Mackey, or Andre Waters and Dave Duerson, and not want to figure out how to prevent that type of mental degradation, or at least minimize it, so that these guys don't have to spend the rest of their lives writing down a list to remind them to brush their teeth.

    Sure, it might be the Health and Safety Obsession right now, but that doesn't mean that the contrarian attitude should automatically be taken towards it--that just because people are freaking out about it, that there isn't much merit to the concerns.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    because it was just assumed that having that helmet on reduced the severity of any injury

    It seems to me that a helmet requirement is prima facie evidence that the risk of head injury is there.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    It seems to me that a helmet requirement is prima facie evidence that the risk of head injury is there

    How does this entail that the long-term effects of repeated concussions should have been assumed and understood?

  • mattrue||

    But it's compounded by the fact that a helmet can be used to inflict injury. Helmeted motorcycle riders who end up with a head injury don't have a good case against whomever they're suing, because it doesn't matter what you make contact with going 50mph +, everyone knows it's not a good idea. Football is different in that there people deliberately trying to end your career with a big hit, even though they're trained to tackle properly (wink, wink). The League isn't (or wasn't) doing enough to prevent that*.

    * see the New Orleans Saints

  • Auric Demonocles||

    Who forced these players to play football?

    In other football related news, after a good start to the pick 'em, I got slaughtered in the afternoon/evening games.

  • DJF||

    This isn’t about forcing, this is about people having information available to make a decision.

    What is so bad about having information about injuries suffered when doing something?

  • Auric Demonocles||

    The players aren't suing for a release of information

  • Willis||

    They are claiming that the NFL covered up information, so in a sense, they are suing for information.

  • ||

    "Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water, suffices to kill him."

    Yeah....anyone here who has ever held a human brain in their hands finds this article no surprise. For that matter, give me the biggest, baddest, toughest MoFo in the world and let me throw him in a sack with a 30 lb bobcat. I'm guessing y'all know how that would turn out.

    However, to quote RC's iron law "You aren’t free unless you are free to be wrong.".
    If players want to play, they should play. Let the league set the rules as they see fit. I consider it to be poor judgement to play football, but a free man must be free to judge poorly. It is a small price to pay for liberty. The price for safety IS Liberty. I will take free men with brain damage over safety freaks any day.

  • db||

    I agree with this, but I do think the game will be changed very significantly, short of a new miraculous PPE breakthrough. And that is fine. If potential players begin to realize the benefits are not worth the costs of playing, and the game ends or is changed beyond recognition because of that, fine. I would oppose any sort of regulatory or legislative attempt to ban the sport or change it. Let the people with the greatest stakes make the changes that are needed.

  • ||

    Agreed. Let those taking the risks access the conditions and adjust according to what risks they are willing to take.

  • Ted S.||

    If they could go back to a more run-oriented game and not send WRs over the middle, the game might be safer.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    ya. every time a defensive player is fined for "helmet to helmet contact" (as if he is responsible for where the the other guy puts his head, or this doesn't occur on every play somewhere on the field), they should also fine the head coach, the offensive coordinator, and the QB an equal amount for letting the WR get into such a vulnerable position to begin with. After all, safety is what is important here.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    Millions of dollars are a pretty good benefit...

  • db||

    So what's your price to contract a degenerative brain disease?

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Because all football players do?

  • db||

    What's your price to take a significant risk of degenerative brain disease? I never said all do. Clearly more research is necessary to determine what the risk factors are. The technology exists today to instrument NFL helmets and pads to collect acceleration and impact data that could be used in conjunction with some investigations into genetics that could help explain which players are at highest risk biologically and which types of hits are most damaging. Players who want to continue to take that risk are free to do so and can help collect the data. Players with a lower risk threshold are free to take their pay to date and go open up a car dealership.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    What's your price to take a significant risk of degenerative brain disease?

    Significant? What's your definition here?

    I'd risk it for the NFL minimum for at least a few years.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    Mine is irrelevant as I'm not saying that others should have to abide by it. I'm saying that for some people, the guarantee of millions of dollars may be a big enough benefit to offset the cost of a higher risk of health problems later on. If they think it's worth it, they are free to play. If not, they're free to ask for more money or go do something safer.

  • ||

    But...but...but... How will they know what to think if we don't tell them?

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    You're also the dick-challenged guy who thinks having the right to own a small-army's worth of guns is like some kind of god-dam pre-ordained right of man.
    In other words, you're a fkn retard.

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    meant for suthenboy.

  • ||

    who thinks having the right to own a small-army's worth of guns is like some kind of god-dam pre-ordained right of man.

    I wonder what could have given him that idea?

    Fuck off slaver.

  • wareagle||

    give it a rest, Steve and like-minded busy-bodies. Football is a contact sport that people play by choice. Yes, rules are in place to penalize egregious hits, like blatant head shots and spearing, but the nature of the game is going to guarantee collisions between and among men.

    There is no science that shows concussions or trauma are any more prevalent today than they ever were. What there is is technological and medical advancement that makes such things easier to spot and diagnose. If you really want to see violent football, check out film from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, when things like the clothesline tackle were commonplace.

    Once upon a time, we rode bikes without helmets, drank whole milk, ran in the woods, climb up in the rear dash of car during long family trips or played on the backseat floorboards, and did a host of things that inspire pearl-clutching today. It's like the generation that actually did those things forgot about them and purposely set out to fuck up its kids' childhoods.

  • KDN||

    It's like the generation that actually did those things forgot about them and purposely set out to fuck up its kids' childhoods.

    You mean the boomers might have fucked something up? No, that can't be it.

  • sarcasmic||

    Q: How many college athletes does it take to screw in a light bulb?

    A: Only one. But he does get three credits for it.

  • ||

    One of the nice things that I noticed about the replacement refs yesterday was that a lot of hits that would have been penalized last year (Aaron Rodgers getting breathed on, some contact as the ball is thrown) went uncalled yesterday. It may take a few weeks to get used to the non-calls, but if it toughens the game up a bit more by actually making it a rough sport again, I think that's a good thing. I'm sick of QB's getting a free pass on the field because they are a QB.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    I really liked this too. The QB slide is a horrible rule.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    The intentional grounding rule is a pox on humanity.

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    Auric,
    there's a "sport" that better fits your blood lust: MMA.

  • ||

    I like that you took the time to put "sport" in parentheses. Not everybody likes to play table tennis and badminton. Doesn't make their preferred competitions any less a sport. There's a reason why there's no such thing as curling coverage outside the Olympics. Put on your skirt, turn the channel, and shut the fuck up if you don't like it.

  • ||

    Why not extend this to loosening the roughing the kicker rule?

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    Don't ever play Reducto ad Absurdiam with Ancaps. We are willing to go with it just to make a point.

  • KDN||

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. The Jets/Bills game was (unexpectedly) expertly reffed, and it was nice to see people get hit and corners actually allowed to play defense for a change. Until the 4th quarter that is, but it's not the refs' fault the Jets' defense gave up. 5 TD leads tend to do that to a team.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    And the thing is, it didn't actually impact the overall offensive production that much. Pass-heavy teams still scored a bunch of points.

    The QB protection rules are almost entirely due to Princess Brady getting hurt, not to any real concern over actual QB safety.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    And quite honestly, if the NFL is that concerned over their bonus baby QBs being in so much danger, than maybe it's time to encourage some rule changes that favor teams with run-heavy offenses instead of the silly Madden vidya game clones we've had the last few years.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    THIS.

    The NFL is now glorified Madden.

  • Killazontherun||

    I've been pleased with the new refs since the pre-season when I noticed similar non-calls the first week. I think I'm going to miss these guys when the strike ends. They are familiar enough with the rules to not bone it up too often to matter, and too virgin to the politics of the NFL to play favorites.

    Can we keep them?

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Can we keep them?

    I doubt it.

    The media is happily criticizing any and every misstep from the refs, completely ignoring that the regular refs are just as fucking bad.

  • Lyle||

    Tort law has been refined by the legal profession over time to increase pay outs to the legal profession.

    Still, I think the NFL is okay though. It's too popular to fail completely at this time.

    There is always assumption of the risk to fall back on to. Exceptions to the rule can always be made.

  • Gray Ghost||

    Still, I think the NFL is okay though. It's too popular to fail completely at this time.

    Change NFL to Philip Morris, and you could say the same thing in 1961, when the first studies came out suggesting that their product was killing people. What will kill football isn't evidence that NFL guys might have their brains scrambled, beating them into each other for 20 years of Pop Warner through the pros; it'll be when evidence comes out that kids suffer cognitive deficits from football.

    I am not old enough, but my grandfather was, to remember boxing being part of P.E. Boxing used to be the sport. Now, it's only foreigners and ghetto kids with no other prospects that participate in it. (Well, that and MMA has siphoned off a lot of the interest) No reason that tackle football can't eventually be viewed in the same light, particularly if the evidence shows that it's the sub-concussive hits that lead to CTE.

    Keep on ignoring the concerns or making fun of the researchers' credentials though. I love professional football, and this news scares the shit out of me for pro football's long-term prospects.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Their death rate from three grave brain diseases -- Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's -- was triple the normal rate.

    Horseshit.

    No one dies because of Alzheimer's. Nor Parkinson's disease. They may die with it, but from it. Neither are terminal.

  • db||

    None exactly enhance one's quality of life, either. I think I would choose a bullet over Alzheimer's, myself.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Too bad you can't remember where you put the guns and ammo :(

  • ubercynic||

    Also, it's hard to see any common mechanism between the three. This smells of statistical rabbit-pulling. If the connection between chronic low-level physical brain trauma and any of these diseases, let alone all of them, IS legit, I'd think people would be jumping all over it as an important clue about the diseases themselves.

  • BladeDoc||

    This statement is factually untrue. Alzheimer's disease kills you by stopping the drive for nutrition and voluntary movement so even if you continue to provide aggressive care you run into the complications of feeding tubes and infection which eventually kills you. Parkinson's kill you by preventing movement and swallowing so you die from horrific skin breakdown or aspiration pneumonia and Lou Gehrig's stops your breathing entirely. Claiming that no one dies "from" these diseases is as nonsensical as claiming that no one dies from falling from a building, it's just the sudden stop at the end. .

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    Bladedoc,
    You're introducing facts.
    It interferes with the football fans' truthiness.

  • NotSure||

    Play Rugby its better, and you don't need armour to play it either. But what do I know, someone here claimed its better because it takes more brains than other sports, I guess those US football players must be all so much smarter than athletes in other countries then, I mean why else would this brilliant sport not be played anywhere else ?

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    To all Rugby fans. Cool game, I like it. Really. It's cool to watch and fun to play.

    To all Rugby trolls. First off it's spelled Armor. Not Armour you fuckin limey. Or limey palm licker, whichever the case may be. Secondly, fuck off. Thirdly, "team" is singular noun, not plural. How long is it going to take you idiots to figure this out?

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    It's "armour."
    Go bomb some ragheads and work off some of that aggression.

  • ||

    Oh great. You're not just a cunt, you're a humorless cunt.

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