I love most sports, but football is first among equals. I love watching it, I loved playing it, and I've defended it as a positive experience for young males. It taught me about doing things that I didn't want to do because others were depending on me - great training for being a man.
This is part of the reason why I'm so worried about the latest news about the damage that football can inflict. Researchers at West Virginia University's Brain Injury Research Institute examined the brain of former NFL wide receiver Chris Henry, who died tragically last December after falling from the back of a pickup truck. The researchers found that Henry's brain showed evidence that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degeneration of the brain that has now been found in more than 50 deceased athletes.
CTE, also known as pugilistic dementia, is caused by repeated blows to the head. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University has all of the background information, but in short: since the 1920s, scientists have known that getting repeatedly whacked in the noggin can cause people to, later in life, experience memory loss, confusion, paranoia, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, depression, and dementia. This has long been associated with boxers - hence the name "pugilistic dementia" - but has only recently come to be associated with football as well. This may have peaked with an October 2009 New Yorker article by Malcom Gladwell, provacatively titled, "Offensive Play: How different are dogfighting and football?"
The shocking part of the Chris Henry findings, however, is that Henry was exceptionally young, and played an exceptionally contact-free position. CTE had been found in ten-year offensive line veterans and long-term strong safties and professional wrestlers before, but Henry was only in the NFL for four years, playing wideout, where he got hit in the head less than any other position on the field. And yet, his brain was damaged in the same way that an Alzheimer's patient's brain would be damaged.
I'm certainly not the only one worried. Tim Keown and Johnette Howard at ESPN.com and Paul Daugherty at SI.com are all concerned what this means for the future of football. Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times - himself a former Northwestern gridder - talked to Mary Hilgenberg, the wife of former Viking stalwart Wally Hilgenberg, who died of ALS, in a must-read interview. She gives the most lump-in-your-throat-inducing quotes you'll ever hear on the subject:
"The brain is too precious to give up. I look at it as I lost my husband because of football. I should be with Wally. He should be with his grandchildren. Fathers put their sons in car seats, and then they drive their sons to play football. It's too dangerous. Don't do it!"
All of that said, the article that hit the closest to home is from Michael Felder of InTheBleachers.net. Felder is worried about football as a whole, but mostly about himself, as he writes in an article titled "What About The Rest Of Us?":
I'm a 25 year old guy with a history of multiple documented concussions at both the high school and collegiate level. To clarify, the concussions they "documented" were mid to high level injuries that left me being spineboarded once, knocked out a few times and unable to stand up or clearly unable to play others.
Chris Henry was a 26 year old guy without a history of concussions whose brain showed clear signs of CTE and resembled issues normally reserved for Alzheimer's patients.
...I can't help but wonder if this is in my brain too.
I never played in college, like Felder. I played six years of small-school, western-Minnesota junior high and high school football. But even so, I had two head injuries with which I missed practice or games, plus any number of the countless "bell-ringers" that every player endures, especially when you play exclusively on the line, as I did.
I can't help but wonder, too: Is this in my brain?
There's no way to diagnose CTE without a brain-tissue sample, and there's no way to get that without the person being dead. We can't know until after the fact whether a football player's brain has become irreparably damaged.
If it happened to Henry, though, then it's clear that just about all football players are at risk, from people like me on up to decade-plus NFL veterans. And so a growing number of people - neurologists, columnists, and former players like me - are starting to worry:
Is football too dangerous to be allowed?