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.
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.