Letter from a reader

Damaging Report on Football Brain Injuries Prompts More Defections from Football—
Sport should not destroy mental health; it should promote health

September 1, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


As football season begins this week, the life-threatening dangers of playing the game are out on front street once again with a new study and early retirements.

A recently released report, “Clinicopathological Evaluation of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Players of American Football,” on the study of brains of deceased football players shows the alarming rate of CTE1 among these players.  The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that 110 of 111 former National Football League players (99%) were neuropathologically diagnosed with the devastating brain disease caused by concussions and sub-concussions due to multiple hits to the head.  (See jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2645104) CTE cannot be definitely diagnosed until the player has died and the brain has been examined, although a number of concussions and symptoms of CTE are indicators that the players may have this deadly disease.

Since this report was released on July 25 this year, two very different defections from football have been all over the news.

The first was John Urschel, a Black player who played three years for the Baltimore Ravens and retired two days after the publication of the report.  Urschel quit so he could further his PhD studies in advanced mathematics at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), where he had been attending during the past two off-seasons studying spectral graph theory, matrix algebra, and computational finance.  He graduated from Penn State in three years with a 4.0 grade point average and has already published nine accepted research papers.  The NFL Network called him “the league’s smartest man” and he has been named to Forbes’ “30 under 30” list of outstanding young scientists.

The second person to leave his job in football is Ed Cunningham, a former NFL player who resigned as a college football analyst for ESPN and ABC.  The New York Times reported, “Cunningham, 48, resigned from one of the top jobs in sports broadcasting because of his growing discomfort with the damage being inflicted on the players he was watching each week. The hits kept coming, right in front of him, until Cunningham said he could not, in good conscience, continue his supporting role in football’s multibillion-dollar apparatus.”  Cunningham said, “I take full ownership of my alignment with the sport.  I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot.”

Urschel has not given a statement after quitting football but posted on his MIT web page, “Right now, I spend most of my time thinking about discrete Schrödinger operators, high-dimensional data compression, algebraic multigrid and Voronoi diagrams.”

He had previously written an essay published in the Players’ Tribune where he said that he envied Chris Borland, who retired from the NFL at age 24 because of his desire not to damage his brain.2 At that time Urschel wrote, "Objectively, I shouldn't [play football]," but that his “passion for the game overrode the possible risks.”

In 2015, Urschel was knocked out in a game that resulted in a severe brain concussion.  He told Bryant Gumbel of HBO Sports that after the concussion his “ability to do high-level math was temporarily affected.”

Cunningham has been very outspoken about his resignation and about brain injuries to players.  According the New York Times, in telecasts of games he would point out “reckless hits and irresponsible coaching decisions that endangered the health of athletes. His strong opinions often got him denounced on fan message boards and earned him angry calls from coaches and administrators.”

After he resigned he said, “In its (football) current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear.  But the real crux of this is that I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it’s unacceptable... I know a lot of people who say: ‘I just can’t cheer for the big hits anymore. I used to go nuts, and now I’m like, I hope he gets up.’” 

John Branchaug of the New York Times, who interviewed Cunningham, said that Cunningham’s “eyes welled with tears” as he said, “It’s changing for all of us. I don’t currently think the game is safe for the brain. And, oh, by the way, I’ve had teammates who have killed themselves. Dave Duerson3 put a shotgun to his chest so we could study his brain… This is as personal as it gets.  I’m not hypothesizing here.”

Several NFL players have retired early due to the dangers of getting CTE, but a prominent sportscaster leaving what he called “a great job” has changed the calculus in another way.  It is unprecedented and let’s hope it spreads.  Cunningham’s play-by-play television partner, Mike Patrick, said of Cunningham’s leaving the booth, “I could hardly disagree with anything he said… But now that I realize what it can do to people, that it can turn 40-, 50-year-old men into walking vegetables, how do you stay silent? Ed was in the vanguard of this. I give him all the credit in the world. And I’m going to be outspoken on it, in part because he led me to that drinking hole.”

The report, written by more than 30 doctors and scientists, studied the brains from 202 deceased players of American football and CTE was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177 players across all levels of play (87%).  The study indicates that the longer you play football the more likely you will have CTE.  Except for pre-high school, CTE was found in all levels of football.  Of those who only played in high school 21% had a mild form of CTE, while full-blown CTE was found in players whose highest level was college, semiprofessional (64%), Canadian Football League (88%), and National Football League (99%).

How many more football players have or are going to have this horrible brain disease that causes memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia that often results in the person taking their own life?4 This is totally unacceptable.  A society that creates sports that cause this kind of pain, suffering, and death should be ruled completely out of order.  Sports should promote health, not destroy health.

I encourage people to get into the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, authored by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party.  This is a constitution for a radically different world than we currently live in and it does speak to the role of sports:

In addition to the sphere of art and artistic creation, the government (with the central Executive Council having the overall responsibility, while establishing agencies and instrumentalities for this purpose and working with government at other levels) shall also promote and support sports events and activities, to provide entertainment and recreation and promote health and fitness throughout society. This shall include some professional sports teams and leagues, while at the same time emphasis is given to the participation of people broadly, and in particular the youth, in sports of many different kinds. The role of competition in sports will be recognized and given its appropriate place, but the basic and overall priority in sports will be to foster bonds of friendship, comradeship, community, cooperation and the shared experience and joy of sport, along with its contribution to health and fitness—and the promotion of internationalism, particularly in sports activities that are engaged in together with people from other countries.

1. “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head. CTE has been known to affect boxers since the 1920s. However, recent reports have been published that neuropathologically confirmed CTE in retired professional football players and other athletes who have a history of repetitive brain trauma. This trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.” (“What is CTE?,” Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy) [back]

2. For more on Chris Borland see “Tackle Football ‘Can’t Be Saved”: Early Retirements Keep the Focus on Concussions in Football,” Revoluton #405, September 21, 2015. [back]

3. Duerson was a teammate of Cunningham’s with the Phoenix (now Arizona) Cardinals in 1992 and 1993. He killed himself in 2011 and when his brain was examined, he was found to have CTE. [back]

4. Revolution newspaper has reported extensively on CTE in football.  (See “George Carlin, Frank Gifford, the NFL and Rugby—More Thoughts on Concussions in Football,” Revolution #417 December 14, 2015;  “Tackle Football ‘Can’t Be Saved’: Early Retirements Keep the Focus on Concussions in Football“, Revolution #405 September 21, 2015; “NFL Concussion Settlement: $765 Million to Suppress the Truth About Brain Injuries, Revolution #316, September 15, 2013; and “League of Denial is a League of Criminals—The Outrageous Brain Injury Cover-Up of the National Football League,” Revolution #320, October 14, 2013) [back]


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