“In football, one has to expect that almost every play of every game and practice, they are going to be hitting their heads against each other. Each time that happens, it’s around 20 G’s or more. That is the equivalent of driving a car at 35 miles into a brick wall. A thousand to 1500 times per year.”
—Robert Stern, PhD Neuropsychologist (featured in the frontline documentary Why The NFL Should Be Scared Of Chris Borland)
Can you imagine being hit in the head constantly with an impact similar to that of hitting a brick wall, and how you might feel the more it happened? Each one of those hits could be potentially damaging for you, let alone having them happen again and again, year after year.
If you’ve ever watched an NFL game, you’re likely unsurprised to hear how dangerous this sport can be. If those big shoulder guards and helmets are any indication, this is not a sport for the faint of heart. It’s rough, requires enormous strength, speed, and agility, and only a select few can make it to the big time.
For many young boys, often their dream is to end up playing in the big leagues, becoming a super wealthy sports star. If they play in college, but don’t get picked up by the professional league, it can completely crush their dreams.
But this rejection may actually be a huge blessing in disguise. That is because, playing in the professional NFL may actually destroy your life.
Tens Of Thousands Of High Impact Hits To The Brain Over The Life Of A Professional Player
By the time someone has finished college football, it is estimated that they will have received an alarming 8000 high impact hits alone (1). When you add a professional football career spanning many years, that number increases dramatically.
Take away the glamour and prestige of the game, and think about it just in terms of these high impacts, and it might not take a lot to see: it’s a very dangerous game for long-term health. Many of the NFL fans out there are still perhaps not aware that a large number of players have died due to these impacts, and some in the most brutal and gruesome ways.
“In my opinion, taking professional football players as a cohort, I think over 90% of American football players suffer from this disease. Over 90% of players who play to the professional level have some degree of this disease. I have not examined any brain of a retired football player that came back negative.”
— Dr. Omalu, speaking to Time Magazine
CTE: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
Dr. Bennet Omalu, who holds four board certifications in Anatomic Pathology, Clinical Pathology, Forensic Pathology, and Neuropathology, began investigating what could be happening to these players and discovered that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy [CTE] was a disease affecting many professional footballers.
CTE (2) is a degenerative disease found in people who have had severe blows to the head. It can occur from even one hit to the head. Professional football players are at the greatest risk of developing CTE. It is now thought that professional NFL players have a whopping 90% chance of developing brain disorders and/or early death. Those with CTE are found to have an increased buildup of the protein Tau. The changes to the brain can begin after one hit, months, years, or even decades after the last hit (3).
Dr. Omalu first came across the case of Mike Webster, who played as a centre for the Pittsburgh Steelers for over 15 years. Some still call him one of the greatest NFL players ever to play the sport. Mike played an estimated 245 professional games.
To give you an idea of how many high impact hits in the head Mike may have received, just in these games, and with the estimation from college football games also included, Mike is likely to have received 17,800 hits. To put this into a different perspective, Mike may as well have been in 25,000 automobile accidents.
Absolutely astounding to say the least.
Mike’s life ended in tragedy. He suffered from amnesia, depression, and dementia. Despite having offers of places to live, he ended up living all alone in his pick-up truck.
What happened to Mike is not an isolated case. To see how many former players have had CTE confirmed after death, please see this alarming compilation here.
Terry Long, who played in 108 NFL games, is a truly tragic case. He drank a gallon of anti-freeze to kill himself. He had been experiencing extreme mental issues such as hearing voices. Terry was perfectly healthy before he played in the NFL.
There have also been several murders and suicides linked to CTE where a football player, Jovan Belcher, killed his girlfriend, and then himself. OJ Simpson, who allegedly killed two people, was a huge football star for many years, and it is speculated that he may too have suffered from CTE, which is proven to affect mood and behaviour.
NFL Worth Billions; CTE Threatens Big Money
Dr. Omalu then went on to write a landmark study on CTE, which he brought to the NFL. While the clinical findings were overwhelming, the NFL (with the 32 teams being worth an estimated combined $63 billion) denied CTE was happening. They simply did not want to know. Many of its leaders were interviewed on TV and said that the sport was ‘safe’ and had ‘zero’ risk of brain injury.
One who denied CTE was Dave Duerson, who played for several NFL teams during his career; he vehemently disagreed that CTE was a problem within the NFL. In a sad and ironic twist of fate, Dave committed suicide in 2011. His brain was sent for further study and it was found that he too, had CTE.
In the movie Concussion (released December 2015), which is about CTE and the NFL (Will Smith plays Dr. Omalu), the viewer sees that the NFL have behaved just like other powerful entities that have a lot of money at stake — when they see a pressing problem they simply chose to deny and hide it. Dr. Omalu spent much of his own money carrying out the study and also ended up being ridiculed and threatened by those close to the NFL. Despite there being so much evidence now that he is right, Omalu today is still often discredited.
“My son is 6. I wouldn’t let my six-year-old son near any football field. And if any coach asks my son to play football, I’ll sue that coach, and I’ll sue the school.”
– Dr. Bennett Omalu, speaking to Time
Chris Borland AKA The Most Dangerous Man In Football
How are some of the players dealing with the issue of CTE? Many choose to ignore it but some have not. Chris Borland was a rising star in the NFL world. He was signed to the San Francisco 49ers and had a very ‘bright’ future ahead of him. Yet after only a year of playing in the big leagues, he quit. His reasoning? He had researched CTE and saw that he was at great risk of developing this and chose to end his career, putting his health first.
To the powerful NFL, what he has done is very threatening to the league. The game makes many billions each year, with the owners of the teams often being worth a billion (or 2 or 3) alone.
Chris spoke about this in an episode of Frontline which you can see below:
“The NFL is smart, they are scared of Chris Borland and the people that will come after them.”
— Chris Nowinski, Executive Director, Concussion Legacy Foundation
NFL Concussion Settlement: 20,000 Players Suing
Since the NFL had prior knowledge of CTE, many players have now sued for not being informed about the risks they would be taking by having a professional football career. It is estimated that 20,000 men are involved in this lawsuit.
Where To From Here? Can The NFL Be Safer?
America’s most loved and lucrative game isn’t going to end anytime soon. The only hope we have is making it safer, but is that even possible? Improvements so far which have been helping to improve the chances of delaying CTE are: longer time spent off the field after a high impact tackle or hit (to allow the brain to rest), new designs of helmets such as the Procap, and new rules to the game. While these may help, it’s perhaps nowhere near enough to decrease the risks of CTE in a way that is going to make a profound improvement.
The game itself would have to be completely changed to make CTE something that doesn’t happen in the extremes it is. So it seems the answer is no, the NFL can’t ever be risk free.
The only thing we can do is hope that players have much more knowledge about what they might be getting themselves into. I wish they would realize that money and fame cannot do a thing to make CTE go away once it’s affected the brain. And experiencing the severe mental problems such as some of the now deceased players have experienced, is something that you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy.
Do People Love NFL For The Wrong Reasons?
I’m ending this on a personal note: I didn’t grow up in America so seeing NFL games is not something that I was at all used to. The first time I ever saw one on TV, I was stunned at how rough it was. It just looked like a game to me that had impossible odds to avoid these high impacts and at times what seemed like near-death accidents. It boggles my mind that just like boxing, it’s something that has become so popular today.
It begs the question: is there perhaps something very wrong with a society that seems to enjoy seeing grown men experience these horrific body slams, the occasional breaking of limbs, and intense head impacts that just make you cringe and feel a bit sick to the stomach because you know that what you just saw has hurt a heck of a lot?
You can also find many clips on Youtube like this one with titles like ‘20 of the Most Gruesome NFL Injuries Ever.’ I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it.
Is all of this violence in sports perhaps a slight throwback to the Roman times where men would be released into a pit and have to fight off lions, and the more gory it was, the louder the cheers?
I know, I’m ‘just’ a woman — I hear some of you saying — who doesn’t ‘get’ what its like to be in a man’s world or understand the skill of this sport. But come on, there’s something seriously awry here. Men are dying, and the odds aren’t good. There will definitely be more, and we can bet on that.
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