Chronic traumatic encephalopathy and violence in football

If you knew of a specific activity that caused memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, parkinsonism and, eventually, progressive dementia, would you not speak out against it? Would it not make sense to treat it with scorn, to avoid, criminalize and abhor it? People have reacted to cigarettes, alcohol and recreational drugs this way, and they are now in the process of speaking out against processed meat. Why do we taboo these vices? Well, because they’re bad for us. They threaten to shorten our lives, deteriorate our minds and in the case of cocaine, threaten to instill homicidal and suicidal thoughts into the minds of otherwise rational and sensible people. Surely we want to avoid all of these perils in our society in order to enhance the quality and longevity of our lives and the lives of our loved ones, right? It seems as though as an American society we’ve largely said yes. So how long will it take us to add full-contact football to that list?

Mike Webster became the first former professional NFL player to be diagnosed with a rare brain disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in 2002. Boston University has been a pioneer in conducting research on the disease since 1996 after it established its own research center specifically for CTE. It’s a part of the university’s previously established Alzheimer’s Disease Center. On September 18 2015, PBS Frontline released an article presenting research findings from a study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University. They concluded that out of 165 professional, college and high school players tested for CTE, 131 of them showed signs of having the degenerative brain disease.

The CTE center’s website has a frequently asked questions section that presents startling assertions like “CTE is caused by repetitive brain trauma. This trauma includes both concussions that cause symptoms and subconcussive hits to the head that cause no symptoms.” Another frightening piece of information is that while the effects of a similar disease, such as Alzheimer’s, begin to show in an individual’s “˜60s, the effects of CTE begin to show as early on as an individual’s “˜40s. The symptoms listed at the outset of this article were also provided by the page as the symptoms most commonly associated with CTE. Perhaps the most frightening bit of information is that traces of the disease have been found in the brains of individuals as young as 17. With all of this research and information available to the public, why isn’t more being done? Is it simply because football is a source of entertainment?

A part of me can empathize with people’s appreciation for some aspects of the sport. At the outset of last year’s fall semester, my roommate introduced me to the renowned video game “Madden”. I hadn’t paid much attention to the sport since I stopped playing in middle school, but autumn hours spent playing the game somehow highlighted the extreme athleticism required to be among football’s elite like nothing else could before. My interest in the sport surged and I was drawn into watching a few games, which I thoroughly enjoyed for their uncertainty of the outcome, the strategy behind a team’s plays and the unfathomable amounts of talent possessed by some players. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in awe of some men’s ability to grasp a ball soaring from yards away while simultaneously sprinting, spinning and often times leaping over defenders in order to capture that flying object. Players momentarily move like danseurs in the ways they manage to maneuver down the field, a comparison I’m sure many football players would hate.

There is an art to the game. However, any appreciation of athletic prowess is removed as soon as players are treated as nothing more than targets set for obliteration. While I wish I could enjoy the game as I used to, I simply cannot overlook the violence that exists in full contact football.

A growing discourse has begun a debate asking if football should be banned. If it continues in the way it has been, then I’d say yes. However, there is a way to save the sport from the violence as I suggested earlier; I’m just fairly certain people won’t like the idea.

Flag football presents itself as the most obvious alternative to tackle football. Most people understand flag football as the sport’s wimpy sibling that only little kids play; you know, until they turn 6 and are permitted to suit up to strike and be struck. Fun fact, according to the website Sportsvite, flag football was played throughout the 1940s by American military personnel looking for a recreational activity. I’d love to meet a football fan prepared to comment on the wimpish-ness of those individuals. It’s the exact same game as football, just without the tackling. Instead, flags are attached to belts located around players’ waists, and a player becomes “downed” when a defender pulls a ball carrier’s flag.

The benefits of switching from tackle to flag football could be enormous. The breakdown of minds would drastically decrease. The game could be enjoyed for its honorable attributes such as tremendous athleticism orchestrated by skillful athletes who have to work as a team to succeed. The sport could be opened to female athletes who have had a desire to participate in the game but have been discriminated against due to the extreme violence, which somehow acceptable only for male athletes to endure.

With all of these potential benefits, why has there not been a serious discussion amongst the general public about instituting these necessary shifts in how people play the game? Why have we continued to wait for the next fix-it-all helmet instead of addressing the true root of problem, the game’s barbaric violence? The depressing truth seems to be that the sadistic elements of football are a large part of what fans love in the game.

When first setting about to write this piece, I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to assert that sort of sentiment due to my belief that it was a biased and unfounded opinion. However, that was before I watched a two-minute long commercial to the abhorrent television show Friday Night Tykes. The commercial would have one believe that the main purpose of the show is to exploit and promote the suffering of children for the entertainment of a perverted viewer. Within ten seconds of the commercial, which can be viewed on Esquire’s page for the show, a child is shown being smashed so hard by two oncoming defenders that his helmet flies off from the force. Another clip shows a player smashing the top of his head into the facemask of another player after hearing his coach prompt him to “go through him like a wall.” A few moments later, another coach states “you gotta play tough” before two children sprint into each other, creating an audible crack as their heads collide. While these clips were stomach-wrenching enough, there are more scenes immediately following that depict both a sprawled out, sobbing child and another one whose dazed and crossed eyes make it clear that he’s concussed. “Chop off the head and the body will fall” states one coach, while another instructs a player to “quit acting like a little girl.” To top it all off, I discovered that all the teams depicted in the show are San Antonio youth football teams.

It would take a writer far more skilled than I to accurately describe the disgust and repulsion I felt after viewing the commercial. The video, which was published in March of this year, highlights the sadistic desire of, at the absolute least, some football fans to see bigger, harder, faster, more debilitating hits in football, even if the players are middle school children.

It seems as though whenever the topic of banning football arises, people are quick to state that adults should be able to do whatever they want to their bodies, even if that means putting oneself at risk of CTE. While the argument is shown to be clearly untrue in terms of other vices, it is the steadfast argument of freedom. If you feel that adults ought to be able to play full-contact football, then fine, I won’t argue with you here.

However, the fact that children and teens with clearly developing minds have been allowed and oftentimes encouraged to be exposed to such a mentally destructive game is beyond logic to me. It’s particularly confusing to me that educational institutions, whose inherent purpose is to foster growth of the mind, manage to remain nonplussed, despite the weight of the evidence for CTE while still ostensibly supporting the healthy development of their students.  

Quite simply, I can’t stomach watching or going to football games anymore. It’s simply impossible to ignore the barbarity. I believe that full-contact football ought to be banned for anyone under the age of 18 years old. Flag football ought to be offered as an immediate solution to the problem of violence in the sport. This shift ought to be made to enhance the minds of all athletes whether they’re children, teenagers or adults.