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. 


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.

And then there’s Fred McNeill, from the Minnesota Vikings. Here is a picture of Fred McNeill, a real person, who really exists, because I know sometimes these things seem like mere statistics if you don’t have a photo. Here is a photo.

Sorry it’s not bigger. I tried. But you can tell he’s handsome. Fred is also thought to have CTE. Would you like to know what happened to Fred? Let’s read an excerpt from The People V. Football, which explains what happened to Fred:

There was a time when Fred was brilliant. He started law school during his last year with the Vikings, studying on the plane to and from games while the other guys slept. He graduated from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, top of his class. After he retired from the Vikings in 1985, he got recruited by a huge firm and then another one, where he was made partner. Then one day in 1996 a certified letter came while Fred and Tia were on vacation with the kids. We voted you out, it said. Fred was 44. It was devastating. How Tia hated those people. Fred was calm, though. He went into private practice, started doing workers’-comp cases for athletes, including some injured Vikings—work that would later prove to be tragically ironic. But after two years, no money was coming in. “What is going on?” Tia asked. It’s not like he wasn’t trying. He worked all the time, gave it his all; you couldn’t find a more honest, diligent man. But the family was going broke. Weird things started happening. Fred jumping out of bed in the middle of the night, panicked and ready to fight. “They’re here!” he would shout, face hot with terror. “Fred, it’s just me!” Tia would say. She would shake him until he snapped out of it. At the time you think he’s just having a nightmare. You get used to things. You don’t put it all together.

They have two sons, Gavin, now 23, and “Little Freddie,” 26. Gavin shares the two-bedroom apartment with Fred, looks after him, cooks him pancakes in the morning. Freddie lives with Tia, about fifteen minutes away, both of them piled into her mother’s house, a blessing, since it’s paid for. The boys are good boys, trying to run a creative agency together, and they go to counseling to help deal with their dad, to help untangle all the craziness that was never understood.

Here now is Fred. Thank God. He knocks on the passenger window, flashes a wide, beautiful smile, does a little ta-dah! dance move. He’s 58 years old, and he has a long, gentle face, a blocky brow, and sprouts of gray hair shooting this way and that. He’s wearing a windbreaker, baggy jeans, sneakers. She thinks he looks terrible. He’s carrying a white notepad, stained and smudged, and covered top to bottom with phone numbers. He forgot the suitcase.

“You need a haircut, Fred,” Tia says. “You look like Bozo the Clown!”

“I don’t want a haircut.”

“All right, let’s just go.” She pulls out, and still, even now, listens as if there is going to be substance.

“I have to make some calls,” Fred says, looking at the notepad. “One of the things you have to do is, people call you, you have to respond to them.” He speaks softly, almost a purr. “You would do the same thing, Tia. Somebody called you, what would you do? Call them back. I take this, I put the number on a big sheet of paper, and I’m cool. I have to start now calling back, not just writing it down. That’s next. And then when I call the person back, I have to respond to whatever it is they say. That’s how it goes. You would do the same thing.”

“Yup,” she says.

“I need to go to the office,” he says.

“Please, Fred.”

There really is an office. He’s not making it up. He’s not delusional. One of the things that happens to people when they begin losing their minds is they fall prey to vultures. One such vulture swooped in on Fred about three years ago. An old-man paralegal offered Fred the dusty back room of his little green house over on Arlington. The man had use for a befuddled lawyer with a valid license, someone he could get to sign legal documents, do his bidding. Fred would show up each day, suit and tie, meticulous, a look befitting a partner in a big firm, and he would do what he was told to do.

Tia knew nothing about any of this. She’d left Fred in 2007. “I’m moving out with the boys, and you’re not coming,” she had said. She couldn’t take it anymore. She thought he was severely depressed and refusing to get help. She kept up his car and phone payments but otherwise stepped out of his life. Gavin stayed in better touch, heard about the paralegal, which didn’t sound quite right. He learned about a “girlfriend” who lived in a rented room Fred would sometimes share. He slept on people’s couches or sometimes in his car. It was Gavin who first rallied the troops. He called Freddie home from college. “There is something seriously wrong with Dad,” he said to Tia.

This was about a year ago, when all the lights went on. Tia met Fred outside his “office” and confronted him in the driveway of the little green house. She hadn’t seen him in nearly a year.

“Fred!” she said. “What is going on?”

“Going on?” he asked. He was standing by his car, a silver Altima with fresh dents. It was filled with clothes and also dozens of Starbucks napkins and paper cups, which Tia instinctively began gathering.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“Throwing shit out.”

“I need my cups!”

She let it go. “Gavin’s taking you to a doctor, and I don’t want you giving him any trouble,” she told Fred. She felt like a one-woman ambulance with a big siren on top of her head. “Now, would you mind telling me what you are doing with this asshole paralegal?” she asked. “He’s using your license and pimping you for rent!”

Fred stood in the driveway, taking in the sun and thinking about asshole and pimping rent for some time. There was still a vast intelligence beneath the fog. “That would be a hustler, not an asshole,” he said to Tia.

“Oh, my God. Where did you meet this guy?” she asked. “He’s crazy. Stay away from crazy people!”

“Okay,” he said, and agreed to move out of the office.

He hasn’t yet. He will. He has to pack it up first. There are materials in file folders. He has to open the file folders and read the materials and decide which box the file folder with those materials should go in. For example, he will open one file folder and read the materials and make a decision to put that file folder with those materials in this box, or that box, or some other box. That’s how it works. That’s how you would do it, too. He’s been packing up the office for about six months now.

Those are two stories. There are too many stories to tell, here. Stories like the one about Andre Waters who shot himself at 45, and, once autopsied, was found to have brain tissue resembling an 85 year old man with Alzheimer’s. Or Dave Duerson, formerly of The Giants, who committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest rather in the head, because he wanted to insure that his brain was tested for CTE. Or Terry Long, who drank antifreeze. Or Justin Strzelczyk who drove his car 90 miles an hour the wrong way down a freeway. Suffice to say, there are plenty more, and you can go through them for hours.

I hate those stories.

None of those players made a big deal out of head trauma during their careers. Because head trauma is practically a joke – NFL players refer to it as “getting their bell rung.” That’s what Mike Webster did.

“He got his bell rung all the time, just like the rest of us,” says former teammate Rocky Bleier. “Webster would would treat a concussion like it was a hangnail,”  Also like the others, he tried to shrug it off. “Everybody gets injured, but most injuries aren’t reported,” says Miki Yaras-Davis, director of benefits at the NFL Players Association. Play­ers worry about ending their career, she says. “Like Webster, most of the guys will treat a concussion like a hangnail.”

This isn’t normal. And you know this isn’t normal. If you got a concussion, you’d be in the hospital. If you were wandering around your desk and got slammed in the head, everyone around you would panic. Because it’s serious. It is not normal to treat traumatic impact to your brain as though it is no big deal, because that is obviously a very bad idea.

Actually? Let’s have retired NFL player Brent Boyd, the founder of Dignity After Football address why treating concussions as though they’re no big deal is not a good idea.


And this is a game where they happen all the time. Time Magazine reported that:

 “High school football players alone sustain 100,000 full-blown, diagnosed concussions per year. Flying under the radar are injuries mild enough to get passed off by coaches as a mere ding or ignored by players anxious to get back on the field.”

Everything would be fine if the brain rested perfectly snugly inside the skull. But since it floats inside a watery base, when it suffers a severe impact brains can bang against the skeletal structure and swell, which causes a concussion.

Neurosurgeon Julian Bailes of Chicago’s NorthShore University Neurological Institute claims:

A blow to the head can cause connecting fibers between nerves to wrench and tear. The brain tries to repair itself, but if the blows continue, it can’t keep up, leading to deposits of tau proteins, a major structural component of nerve fibers.

“The taus begin to accumulate,” Bailes says. “I compare them to sludge. Any concussion could lead to taus, but what we’ve learned is that it’s the repetitive nature of what used to be called mild brain injury that causes problems.” Scarily, football helmets, which do a fine job of protecting against scalp laceration and skull fracture, do little to prevent concussions and may even exacerbate them, since even as the brain is rattling around inside the skull, the head is rattling around inside the helmet.

And as helmets become more protective, they only encourage players to play harder.

After Omalu’s initial studies about CTE were published, the NFL denied the findings. That’s not surprising. It’s not really a study that looks great for the NFL. So they commissioned a study by the University of Michigan. That study found the same thing. Namely, that playing football for a long time really fucks up your brain.

Julian Bailes—weighed in, stating:

“The Michigan study is the first time any research performed or commissioned by the NFL has offered any contribution to the notion that banging heads with big fast guys thousands of times could even possibly affect your brain. Right. We knew this already… As a physician, as a researcher, as a brain scientist, my job is to alert what we see from a public-health perspective, and what we’re discovering is a new, previously unappreciated syndrome. It’s up to the people who are the stakeholders in this how to react. Dementia is the worst disease. This is worse than saying that football causes cancer, or football causes heart attacks. With this, you lose your mind and you lose your dignity.”

Dementia is the worst disease. God, dementia is the worst disease. The idea that anyone goes from being a national hero to, say, drinking antifreeze because he destroyed his brain for our amusement is grotesque. It’s barbaric. We live in the 21st century. We know better.

I’m not entirely enthusiastic to tell you any of this, because, if you tell people that you have one or two minor hesitations when it comes to football, you might as well just tattoo “I hate America” across your forehead.

It’s funny, because if you went around telling people that you liked to throw paint on fur coats because you believe that sweet little minks shouldn’t be killed, you’d be fine. People would understand that. I can’t do that, because I don’t give a shit about minks. They very rarely seem to pull babies out of burning buildings, and therefore, I’m sure I’d eat them if they were more delicious.

The only thing I really care about, the only cause I would say I have, is that I’d like people to be as smart as they can be. That’s different for everyone. Some people are going to make more terrible decisions than other people. That’s fine. But I think I can pretty much assure you that if you have a brain that’s enduring the equivalent of a few car crashes every day, science indicates that you’re no longer going to have the potential to be as smart as you can be.

Because at that point, as smart as you can be is going to mean “homeless, and living in train stations, brushing your teeth with superglue.”

That isn’t okay. That’s actually really bad.

And, while, if you told people that you attended dogfights (and Gladwell makes the comparison between the two in his New Yorker piece, insofar as it’s possible that the destructive nature of the game to its participants is simply an essential part of football) they would almost certainly tell you they couldn’t be friends with you anymore because you were a monster. If you point this out regarding football, you will always be seen as spoiling a perfectly good past-time.

If you mention Iron Mike or Fred McNeill, you’re very likely going to get one response, which is, “yeah, but we pay them really well.”

Well, kind of. The average NFL player earns $770,000 a year. Now, that’s a bit skewed towards towards quarterbacks, whereas obviously linebackers are the ones enduring the most significant head trauma – and players in say, Brent Boyd’s time made around $50,000 a year. But regardless, the average NFL player’s career lasts 3.5 years. That works out to $2,695,000.

Huh. Okay. That’s a good salary. That’ll buy you a nice apartment in New York. A three bedroom, maybe. I mean, it will be tough for you to continue to make payments on it, but okay. Sure. It’s a good amount. Oh, you want to send a kid to private school? Okay, deduct $360,000. Oh, and taxes. Okay. Still good. You can still swing a three bedroom if you live within your means. You can absolutely live on that if you live practically and intelligently.

Although often the guys who tell me that “we pay them so much money” are finance guys who expect to be averaging around that amount for 25 odd years. I ask them if they intend to make 2.5 million and no more in the course of their lives, and they blanch.

No matter. Again, if you’re practical, and you don’t have a lot of other options, sure, 2.5 million is a great salary.

But if you have a brain that looks like it’s been riddled by Alzheimer’s at 45, you’re going to have a hard time living practically and intelligently. You’re going to start making some pretty bad financial decisions. You’re going to be a lot like Fred McNeill. And despite whether or not you’ve gone out and earned a law degree, despite your accomplishments, your personality and your drive, people are going to assume it’s because you’re a big, dumb jock.

Even, sometimes, the people who know you best won’t understand, because these are not risks that people go into the game expecting.

Take Iron’s Mike’s wife, who claimed:

This reliable fam­ily man who used to read his children Bible stories at bedtime began to get in his car and disappear for days. “I didn’t realize he had a brain injury,” says Pamela. “I just thought he was angry at me all the time.” Money quickly became a problem. Webster had several million dollars in assets when he retired, so it shocked Pamela when their Victorian house was foreclosed 18 months after he left football. Webster’s finances remain a muddle, but from conversations with his family and lawyers, it appears he poured most of his savings into in­vestments that went bad.

She thought he was just angry at her. At the very least, these are things people need to know absolutely going into the game. Football players assume that they’ll end up with busted knees and maybe some broken bones. They don’t assume that they are going to lose their minds at really young ages. Because $2.5 million doesn’t seem like enough to pay for someone’s life and dignity – which we’re doing it because we like sitting and watching them from easychairs while we eat chicken wings.

I’m tired of pretending that’s okay. I’m tired of high fiving people over games when I know that football players are going crazy enough to kill themselves, and drink antifreeze, and wandering around falling prey to assholes, and sleeping in train stations. I’m tired of being cool when 18 year old kids are getting concussions, and 45 year old brains look 85 and – well, I’m bored with all that. I find apathy very boring. And I really think that, until we find a way to insure that we are not resigning our sports icons to ignoble deaths, until we feel like we’d be comfortable sending our own children out to play – well, I’d at least prefer not to watch.

Though of course, I won’t necessarily tell everybody. I wouldn’t want to seem dull. Have a fun Superbowl weekend, everybody. Go Giants!