• Thu, Feb 2 2012

I Kind Of Think Football Is Completely Immoral, But No Big Deal!

iron mike webster cte
God forbid I be one of those women who hates football because it’s “boring.” It’s not a boring game. It seems to combine gladiatorial inclinations with military strategies. That’s interesting. And even if it was boring, anything – literally anything – can be made interesting if you have money riding on it. Place $100 on an arbitrary team because you like their colors or the pluck of their players, and I guarantee you, you’ll spend that game downright riveted. Christ, I love betting on stuff. Rock paper scissors, chess matches, anything.

But I don’t love football.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s just that I kind of hate it.

I hate football because, well, here’s the thing – it fucks up its players’ brains.

It fucks its players brains’ really badly. 

Indisputably.

Studies conducted by the NFL confirm it.

And then they die.

Have you heard about CTE? No? That’s cool! It’s kind of obscure! It stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is a fancy way of saying “getting hit in the head over and over.” It results in the degeneration of brain tissue and the acumulation of tau protein, which is similar to what you’d find in a brain with Alzheimer’s. It’s typically characterized symptoms of dementia like memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression. It affects football players with terrific frequency.

Omalu,  a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist who began diagnosing CTE in football players in 2002. He’s found one football player (a running back) whose brain didn’t seem to show signs of CTE. One. He remarks:

“There is something wrong with this group as a cohort,” Omalu says. “They forget things. They have slurred speech. I have had an N.F.L. player come up to me at a funeral and tell me he can’t find his way home. I have wives who call me and say, ‘My husband was a very good man. Now he drinks all the time. I don’t know why his behavior changed.’ I have wives call me and say, ‘My husband was a nice guy. Now he’s getting abusive.’ I had someone call me and say, ‘My husband went back to law school after football and became a lawyer. Now he can’t do his job. People are suing him.”

But all of that seems a little bit vague. None of that really gets at what it means to be with someone suffering from dementia – and one in three retired football players will suffer from dementia (players younger than 50 will suffer from it at 19 times the rate of the national average). Some of those are players like Iron Mike Webster. I can’t really describe what happened there any better than Jeanne Marie Laskas did in GQ, so I won’t try. Here is an excerpt from her terrific piece on the subject:

The coverage that week had been bracing and disturbing and exciting. Dead at 50. Mike Webster! Nine-time Pro Bowler. Hall of Famer. “Iron Mike,” legendary Steelers center for fifteen seasons. His life after football had been mysterious and tragic, and on the news they were going on and on about it. What had happened to him? How does a guy go from four Super Bowl rings to…pissing in his own oven and squirting Super Glue on his rotting teeth? Mike Webster bought himself a Taser gun, used that on himself to treat his back pain, would zap himself into unconsciousness just to get some sleep. Mike Webster lost all his money, or maybe gave it away. He forgot. A lot of lawsuits. Mike Webster forgot how to eat, too. Soon Mike Webster was homeless, living in a truck, one of its windows replaced with a garbage bag and tape…

Fitzsimmons had first met Webster back in 1997, when he showed up at his office asking for help untangling his messed-up life. Webster was a hulk of a man with oak-tree arms and hands the size of ham hocks. Fitzsimmons shook his hand and got lost in it, mangled fingers going every which way, hitting his palm in creepy places that made him flinch. It seemed like every one of those fingers had been broken many times over. Mike Webster sat down and told Fitzsimmons what he could remember about his life. He had been to perhaps dozens of lawyers and dozens of doctors. He really couldn’t remember whom he’d seen or when. He couldn’t remember if he was married or not. He had a vague memory of divorce court. And Ritalin. Lots of Ritalin.

“With all due respect, you’re losing your train of thought, sir,” Fitzsimmons said to Webster. “You appear to have a serious illness, sir.” Not a pleasant thing to tell anyone, and here was a hero, a famous football player Fitzsimmons once bowed to, as did all young guys worth the Terrible Towels they proudly waved in the 1970s. The Dynasty! The black and the gold! It fueled optimism here, up and down the rivers, mill towns held tight in the folds of the Allegheny Mountains. And here was Iron Mike himself.

As a personal-injury lawyer, Fitzsimmons thought what he saw in Webster was an obvious case of a man suffering a closed-head injury—the kind he’d seen plenty of times in people who had suffered through car crashes and industrial accidents. No fracture, no signs of physical damage to the skull, but sometimes severe psychiatric problems, memory loss, personality changes, aggressive behavior.

“Please help me,” Mike Webster said.

It took Fitzsimmons a year and a half to hunt down all of Webster’s medical records, scattered in doctors’ offices throughout western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He sent Webster for four separate medical evaluations, and all four doctors confirmed Fitzsimmons’s suspicion: closed-head injury as a result of multiple concussions.

Fitzsimmons filed the disability claim with the NFL. There are several levels of disability with the NFL, and Mike Webster was awarded the lowest one: partial, about $3,000 a month.

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  • endn

    thanks for posting this… you may get some flak but people ignore this mess way too easily. preach!

  • self help

    I see your point, but basically every football fan will say, “Well, then don’t become a football player if you don’t like the consequences.”

  • Jen

    This freaks me out. I play rugby and i am guilty of treating concussions like hangnails… (getting knocked out cold, driving home and going to a concert the same night and then trying to play in a game less than a week later, reconcussing myself). I’m also in my final year of law school, and don’t want to be basically senile only years into my career. Freaky…

    On the other hand, one of canada’s ex-Supreme Court judges was a professional CFLer.

  • Jamie Peck

    This is the same reason I hate football. (Actually, it’s one of many, but it seems like the most valid one.) Sending this to my boyfriend now!

  • porkchop

    “At the very least, these are things people need to know absolutely going into the game. ”

    The age at which you make a big commitment to football, 18-25, is the same age where your worry over physical risk is at it’s all time low. Seeing a video of an injured former player would scare a college-age player, but probably not deter them from a lifelong dream.

    I think you’re right–you’re up against our whole culture. We’re too polite to admit we want to watch each other fight to the death. But…

    Stay strong!

  • BeccaTheCyborg

    I’m a Canadian, and I feel the same way about hockey for the same reason. I can’t see the fun in watching people destroy themselves for our amusement and then get told they deserved the results, are exaggerating, or knew what they were getting into.

  • NotThumper

    I dislike football for the same reason I detest all sports-people are paid far too much money for playing a GAME. I must admit that reading this article does make me feel a bit more justified in my opinion though.

  • David Jahr

    Thank you for bringing this issue to the light. Daniel G. Amen has studied the impact of playing football for year, having just completed three landmark studies on NFL players’ brain health.

    The conclusions are expected. Playing football is bad for your brain and can lead to problems associated with brain damage years later, that will cost you your memory, sanity and your life.

    But one study showed that through his treatment, many of these symptoms can be reversed.

    If you know anyone struggling with ADD/ADHD, dementia, memory loss, anger etc, send them to the Amen Clinics, Inc.

    Or if anyone would like to read the studies, let me know.

    David
    davidjahr@mac.com

  • Jennifer Dziura

    I stopped boxing once I realized that I kind of like my head not getting hit. And also my eyeballs.

    Also, Jennifer, as much as it makes me feel alive, maybe we need to cancel our regular Ladies’ Fight Club.

    • Jennifer Wright

      In the future, only high stakes gambling and Russian roulette to unwind. We need to take better care of ourselves.

    • MR

      Ladies’ Fight Club? What is Brad Pitt the instructor? :) Sorry but my money is on Helena…she was definately…. :)

  • Tania

    Fred’s story almost made me cry at work.

  • Jeanne Marie Laskas

    THANK YOU, JENNIFER WRIGHT! This is an awesome overview and so so so important and hard to talk about–esp now. Thank you for joining the conversation!

  • MR

    Football is okay, but pretty one dimensional. Yeah, definately as brutal on the athlete as hockey. Good news is my girlfriend’s a diehard Red Sox fan. She says she’s going teach me the AL ropes, since I favor the NL – I’ve been somewhat teamless since the Expos vacated Montreal, over 5 years ago – man, do I miss them, $22 US for front row box seats.

  • lovecady

    loveyou

  • Jenny

    Thank god someone agrees with me! I took a Sportswriting class as part of my journalism major – that was also required for sports management majors – and we read a number of stories about the dangers of football and tau buildup. The athletes in the class seemed totally uninterested. I still don’t understand how the seriousness didn’t register for them – these are your brains, people! I didn’t love football before that class, but after reading so many tragic stories about lives destroyed by concussions, I reached Jennifer’s conclusion. I hate football.

  • Hugh

    Auto-play ads like this website has are also immoral.