Football, CTE, and Agency

Athletes, especially football players, have been involved in some high-profile violent incidents.

  • Dec 16, 2009.  Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry had a domestic dispute with his fiance Loleini Tonga.  She tried to get away by getting into a pickup truck.  He climbed in the back, and while she was driving, either fell or jumped out of the truck,  and died as the result of massive brain trauma.
  • May 2, 2012.  Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau died after shooting himself in the chest at his home.
  • Dec 1, 2012.  Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Javon Belcher killed his girlfriend, drove to the Chiefs’ Stadium, talked to his coaches and then killed himself in front of them.

Football, in particular, seems to breed violent behavior.  We are all saddened to hear of incidents like these.  But what has been learned in each of these cases mentioned about was that the players suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  Not all people who suffer from CTE die violent deaths.  CTE was first discovered in Pittsburgh Steelers Center Mike Webster.

Webster played in the NFL from 1976-1990.  Soon after his career ended, his life began to fall apart.  He had difficulty expressing himself, was agitated, his marriage dissolved, he became homeless, he became very erratic.  He was declared mentally disabled due to his playing career, and died of a heart attack in 2002. His family asked for an autopsy, which was performed by Bennet Omalu.  Omalu expected Webster’s brain to show the signs of Alzheimers, and expected a “shriveled” brain.  To his surprise, Webster’s brain appeared normal.  Upon further review, Omalu discovered specks of protein throughout Webster’s brain, and believed it to be the result of Webster’s years of playing football.  Webster’s teammate Terry Long committed suicide shortly after Webster’s death.  Long died by drinking anti-freeze; his life had fallen apart just like Webster, and Long was discovered to have CTE as well.  These and other findings are documented in a PBS documentary, League of Denial, currently available on Netflix.

The NFL has long fought Omalu’s findings, but it appears the science is changing things.  Just how serious are these brain injuries ?  Leigh Steinberg, agent for former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman recounted a story.  During the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers, Aikman received a knee to the head and received a concussion.  Steinberg recounted his conversation with Aikman in a darkened hospital room.  Aikman looked at Steinberg and said, “Where am I?” (approx 30 minute mark of film)

Troy Aikman, concussed when he received a knee to the head in 1994 playoff game.

Troy Aikman, concussed when he received a knee to the head in 1994 playoff game.

Steinberg, “You’re in the hospital.”

Aikman, “Why am I here?”

Steinberg, “Because you suffered a concussion today.”

Aikman, “Who did we play?”

Steinberg, “the 49ers.”

Aikman, “Did we win?”

Steinberg, “Yes, you won.”

Aikman, “Did I play well?”

Steinberg, “Yes, you played well.”

Aikman, “and so, what’s that mean?”

Steinberg, “It means you’re going to the Super Bowl.”

Steinberg and Aikman celebrated the news, but about 5 minutes later, they’re sitting there and Aikman repeats the exact conversation they just had, “Where am I? Did we win?”  About 10 minutes later, Aikman again repeated the exact same questions.  Steinberg describes his feelings,

It terrified me to see how tender the bond was between sentient consciousness and potential dementia and confusion was.

The film then shifts to LDS quarterback Steve Young, another of Steinberg’s clients (and the losing quarterback in the game mentioned above.)  This time, it was a Monday night game against the Arizona Cardinals.  Young was knocked unconscious and you can hear the announcer Al Michaels,

Michaels, “… a sight that is the last thing in the world that the 49ers would like to see.  It looks as almost as if he’s out cold!”

Dan Dierdorf, “Al, I’ve been there.”  (Dan is a former player of the St. Louis Cardinals.)

After a few moment pass, Young stands up abruptly and heads to the sidelines.  It was his 7th concussion, and ended up being his last game he ever played.

Al Michaels in disbelief, “Look at this!  It looked like he was out cold, and now he is up, walking off!”

Steve recounts that game.

Steve Young lying on the ground, unconscious in his last NFL game.

Steve Young lying on the ground, unconscious in his last NFL game.

I remember walking to the sidelines, [he shakes his head and chuckles], “This is not good!  You know this is just not the right thing to happen.”

“If my knee is hurt, everyone knows it and I know it and we can deal with it, and shoulders.  There’s only one place in your body that you really don’t understand.  People always say the brain is the last frontier.

[Narrator continues], “For Steinberg, there was a growing realization just how dangerous the sport was.

Young continues (around 1:28 mark of movie)

You talk  about a nefarious injury, one that you never feel, until it’s too late…That’s the thing that’s most alarming to me.

It was believed that CTE resulted in only NFL players who had experienced years of bone crushing plays.  However, two of the most stunning cases involved a 21 year old Penn University football player Owen Thomas, a good student who hung himself in his dorm room despite having never been diagnosed with a concussion.  Even more stunning was an 18 year old high school senior who died 10 days after his 4th concussion.  He was a good student, multi-sport athlete.

McKee, “I was SHOCKED to find in the brain of this 18 year old there were little tiny spots, little tiny areas in the frontal lobe that looked just like this disease.”

[interviewer], “You have an 18 year old with Chronic Traumatic Encephalophy that just shouldn’t happen.”

McKee, “I had an 18 year old at that time.  You know that that brain is supposed to be pristine.  The fact that it was there, and he was only playing high school level sports, I mean that’s a cause for concern.”

This is causing researchers to wonder if “sub-concussive” hits were more dangerous than originally believed.When asked if she would let her 8, 10, or 12 year old son play football, McKee emphatically responded “No!”  Hall of Fame football player Harry Carson advises his grandchildren that they should not play football.  The NFL has recently agreed to pay $765 Million to pay NFL players for dementia related expenses.  Carson responded that he now had 765 million reasons why people should not play football.

McKee has discovered CTE in 45 of 46 brains of football players, an astonishingly high hit rate.  If CTE can exist in people as young as 18, how many other people have this disease, especially if they have played little-league football?  Can some strange behavior be caused by CTE?

Back in 2004, Utahns were riveted by the news of Mark and Lori Hacking.  Mark reported Lori had gone jogging in Salt Lake City and never returned.  After a week of searching, Mark admitted that he had killed Lori and disposed of her body in a dumpster.  Mark plead guilty and received a life sentence.  It was learned that Mark fell off a roof and suffered a brain injury, causing some to speculate that was the reason for some of his odd behavior.  For example, he lied to his family, telling them he had graduated from college and been accepted to medical school when he was no where close to graduation.  Could Mark have CTE, and could this explain his actions?  Could other angry outbursts be tied to CTE?

Not everyone thinks the links to CTE and football are related.  There are other possibilities to consider:

  • Could CTE be explained by drug abuse or steroids in a small number of NFL Players?
  • How many brain traumas does it take to get CTE?
  • How common is CTE?
  • Is this something that everybody will get if they have enough brain trauma?
  • Why does one person get it and not another?

There is a recent domestic abuse situation in which Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocked out his fiance in an elevator.  Could he be suffering from CTE?  (Currently there is no way to diagnose CTE except by autopsy.)  And let’s not forget that while football gets the lion’s share of publicity, athletes in other sports get CTE as well. Click the links below for a list of athletes diagnosed (post-mortem) with CTE.

9 Other athletes diagnosed with CTE

I had a conversation with a neurologist who told me she thought football would “disappear” within 30 years because of CTE.  Do you agree with her?  Should football be banned?  How do you think God will judge people like Junior Seau, Chris Henry, and Javon Belcher?  Does someone with CTE really have agency?  How should we treat them?


6 comments on “Football, CTE, and Agency

  1. I posted this at W&T, and wanted to copy some of the comments from over there.

    Headgear isn’t a requirement for CTE. The disease was previously called dementia pugilistica (DP); boxers were the most common to get it and were called “punch-drunk.” It was surprising to researchers that believed football players were protected due to the helmets, but it is now believed that helmets, while helpful for some injuries, don’t really protect the brain.

    The film also talked to a Boston University researcher, Chris Nowinski. Chris had played football for Harvard, then went on to a pro wrestling career where he was known as “Chris Harvard.” In on case, he had been hit with a steel trashcan, and said he had headaches for 5 weeks. He knew something was wrong, and believes that he probably has CTE from both his football and wrestling careers. It should be noted that pro wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife and son, then killed himself. He has CTE too. I will also add that rugby player Barry Taylor was diagnosed with CTE. Whether one wears a helmet or not, CTE hits them all.

    There is even the case of Ryan Freel, baseball player for Kansas City Royals. He probably got CTE after colliding in the outfield with a teammate, for which he was out of action for about a month. Then he was hit in the head by a pick-off throw to first base. Freel later commit suicide.

    Click the links above to find out about more athletes in other sports. (The list of suspected cases in the NFL is astonishing–Jim McMahon, Tony Dorsett, to name a few.) It is also believed that many soldiers experience head trauma–PTSD and associated disorders may be related to CTE.

    Soccer has a surprising number of head injuries, due to “heading” the ball. Many youth leagues are banning heading in hopes of reducing head injuries.

    I love football, but I wouldn’t let my boys plays it. My dad played football, but steered his boys toward baseball and basketball.

    It could be much more common that previously known, and was unheard of just a decade ago.

  2. I guess what I’m trying to get at with this article is “how do we define accountability when one has a brain injury?” I mean we all know suicide and murder are wrong. I believe that the book Mormon Doctrine even calls it self-murder and condemns suicide to the Telestial Kingdom.

    But we understand that mentally retarded people or Downs Syndrome people aren’t accountable. I suspect many of us would say that severe Alzheimers patients are no longer accountable. But where do we draw the line? Will God hold Junior Seau accountable for his suicide when it is now known he had CTE? Will God condemn Seau to the Telestial Kingdom because of his suicide, or will God offer grace and understand the mental illness in his last act on earth? And Robin Williams?

    But it goes further. How does God hold someone like Chris Benoit, or Javon Belcher accountable? Their brain injuries caused them to murder, prior to suicide. I mean we all know murderers go to hell, but what happens when they are documented to have CTE? How much accountability do these men have?

  3. CTE research has expanded beyond sports. Now they are finding that soldiers who have returned from Iraq. Are showing signs of CTE. Also people who have had severe head trauma from accidents. Testing has also advanced enough that a blood test can determine your possibility of having CTE . My neurologist thinks I may have it. but unfortunately the test is not available in oz.
    Its hard to determine accountability. I would like to hope that they are not accountable. As I may one day be in that situation.

  4. That’s interesting to hear AstralLDS. I know that head trauma is a big issue in the military, but I haven’t heard of any studies tied to CTE. Are you aware of any?

  5. It started with Dr Goldstien http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22593173 but others are now looking in to the links.

  6. Here is an interesting video from Chris Borland.


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