Author: Margaret Savit
In 1905, Shaller Mathews, dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, christened American football “a boy-killing, man-mutilating, money making, education prostituting, gladiatorial sport."
In November of that same year, Harold Moore, a student and football player at Union College, died of a cerebral hemorrhage following a head-on collision with a player from New York University. Moore’s father had come to NYU to watch his son at the game; instead, he had to watch as his boy collapsed into a fit of convulsions – until the young man finally stopped moving entirely. The highly publicized tragedy caused a tidal wave of public outcry, and it did not seem unreasonable to think that football would be resigned to the annals of American sports culture by 1910.
The survival of the sport is often credited to President Theodore Roosevelt – a devoted football fan himself – who called a meeting with coaches from Harvard, Princeton and Yale, urging them to make the sport less dangerous. Since 1905, football has seen dozens of reforms (the mandatory use of helmets, for instance, came in 1939). At the same time, the brutality of the sport is part of what makes it so appealing; Roosevelt himself was known to have valued this aspect of the game, remarking:
I believe in outdoor games, and I do not mind in the least that they are rough games, or that those who take part in them are occasionally injured. I have no sympathy whatever with the overwrought sentimentality which would keep a young man in cotton-wool, and I have a hearty contempt for him if he counts a broken arm or collar-bone as of serious consequence when balanced against the chance of showing that he possesses hardihood, physical address, and courage.
In the past few decades, however, it has become clear that the possibility of a broken arm or clavicle is the least of a football player’s worries; depression, dementia and other long-term (and often incurable) neural complications have become more pressing concerns.
Dallas Cowboys Hall-of-Famers Randy White and Rayfield Wright are the latest to join the concussion lawsuits against the National Football League. To date, there have been 64 concussion-related lawsuits filed against the NFL, which include over 1,300 plaintiffs. The complaint, Lee Roy Jordan et al v. NFL, contains four separate counts: negligence, fraudulent concealment, negligent misrepresentation, and conspiracy. Plaintiffs allege that the NFL intentionally concealed the “causal connection” between head injuries sustained while playing professional football and long-term health problems.
One of these lawsuits was filed by Ray Easterling, former safety for the Atlanta Falcons. Easterling played for the Falcons from 1972 to 1979, and was part of the “Gritz Blitz” defense that set the record for fewest points allowed during a season. Easterling’s wife says she first noticed that her husband was experiencing memory problems and mood swings twenty years ago; over the past two decades, Easterling’s symptoms of depression and dementia have continued to escalate – until last Thursday, April 19th, when Easterling was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, neuropathologist and Chief Medical Examiner in San Joaquin County, California, was the first to document chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a type of long-term neurological damage previously observed in professional boxers – in a football player: former Pittsburgh Steelers center Michael Webster. The primary indicator of CTE is a high concentration of a protein called tau in brain tissue; deposits of tau are also considered to be a hallmark of other neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. Although there is not currently enough evidence to suggest causation between football injuries and tau protein build-up, Omalu has subsequently diagnosed CTE in 8 out of the 9 former football players he has autopsied – a strong indicator that he is on to something.
Following the recent exposure of the New Orleans Saints’ “bounty” system – cash compensation to players for injuring particular opponents during games – the NFL has taken a harsh stand towards those implicated in the program. Saints head coach Sean Payton has been suspended for all of next season, and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been banned indefinitely. Furthermore, players involved may stand to face criminal charges.
The severity of the reaction is due, in part, to the fact that the league can’t afford to sink deeper into its resurfacing reputation as a brutal, dangerous sport. Increasing public awareness of the depression, memory loss, mood swings, sleep problems, and dementia – all symptomatic of CTE – suffered by former NFL players is creating an undercurrent of wariness towards the sport, especially at the youth and high school level. One of the most disconcerting findings to date, in fact, has been in the brain of an 18-year-old; neuropathologist Ann McKee of Boston University found alarming concentrations of tau during the autopsy of a high school football player. Unless safety equipment can be radically improved, and recovery practices changed to ensure players have healed sufficiently before returning to play, football will be headed toward an impasse similar to the one it faced back in 1905: reform or die.
Margaret Sivit is a second-year in the College.