Friday, May 4, 2012

WHAT DO WE TELL OUR KIDS AFTER JUNIOR?

The Brain with the spots showing CTE

I love football.  I always have.  It was one of the few sports I could compete against and hang with the older kids when I was four or five years younger.  I had good hands.  I could run solid routes.  I understood it. 

I was never allowed to play organized football.  My parents forbade such a thing, as I was rather thin boned and small, and they were worried I would be taken off the field on a stretcher.

These days, forget about the stretcher.  How about being removed in a coffin?

After the death of Junior Seau by apparent suicide, the discussion has once again leaped to the forefront of the NFL pundits as to whether this was another death due to the brain condition CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).  Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease that results in behaviors similar to Alzheimer’s disease (AD). However, according to researchers, CTE has a clear environmental cause (repeated brain trauma) rather than a genetic cause. In other words, CTE is the only preventable form of dementia (see complete medical definition here)

Whether or not Junior Seau's death was caused by CTE or not, he is now the eighth member of the 1994 Chargers Super Bowl team to die and all before age 45.  Most have died of heart related issues that could have simply been related to their massive size or unnatural defects, lack of care of their bodies, etc.  One had a (accidental) drug overdose.  The offensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers have been plagued by what appear to be CTE- caused suicides --   Hall-of-Fame Center Mike Webster died of a heart attack, but word of his years of post NFL torment, along with drug and alcohol use were documented before and after his death.  He was prescribed Ritalin after he was diagnosed with brain damage.  Lineman Terry Long drank antifreeze and died.  Justin Strzelczyk was killed when he slammed his motorcycle in a truck while evading police.  According to some friends he had called the night prior to make peace.  He was found to have the early signs of brain damage from football.  He was 36.  Then there's the case of 26 year-old Chris Henry, who was killed after he lost hold of the roof of his girlfriend's truck that was traveling at high speed.

Justin Strelczyk's death was likely caused by CTE


It is already difficult enough for the majority of professional athletes to adjust to retirement after a sport.  It comes early in their lives often and for a large number of athletes, leaves them feeling alone and useless.  With the spotlight gone, the daunting task of trying to find what to do with the next half to two-thirds of their lives seems difficult to say the least.  ESPN the magazine reported the 60% of NBA players go bankrupt within five years of retirement.  The fall is even faster for NFL players - 78% are bankrupt just two years after hanging up their cleats.  Now, for the participants of high-contact sports, NFL and NHL players find an added wrinkle; that of trying to stay sane after compounded brain injury.

The NFL has been trying in their own way to make the game safer while still appetizing to its contact-hungry fans.  The sport is by definition dangerous.  It is a warrior's game.  However, in the light of continuing deaths of these players, how will the NFL be able to sell the future of this sport to parents and their children?

To put it in a more personal context, would I now allow my son to participate in full contact tackle football?  Would the short term pleasure or even the possibility of a lucrative career be worth trading years of future life?  I can't answer that question so easily anymore.

My parents told me I'd thank them when I got older, but they could not have known the wisdom of their words.  They thought it was because I'd be able to walk on two solid knees.  They never suspected it was so I wouldn't try to kill myself by the time I reached my 40s.