When people talk about football nowadays, I think about wrestler Chris Benoit — about how he used to leap off the top ropes with such grace, even though he was kind of unelegant and stubby, like a fireplug defying gravity. I used to love watching him. Even after Owen Hart died, even after I knew I was watching something that sometimes killed the people doing it, it wasn't enough to stop me from enjoying it.
But when Chris Benoit killed his wife and kid and then himself, that pretty much ended my ability to watch wrestling. Every once in a while, I'll flip by and see someone doing something amazing and outsized and delightful, and I'll watch and it'll be okay for a bit. But then comes the knowledge that I am watching them do something to themselves that could result — no, not could result, did result — in the murder of a woman and a child and a suicide. All the time I was watching Benoit, watching him slam his body repeatedly to the ground, I was watching him inching closer to those deaths.
I'm starting to get that feeling with football. And I don't know why it should make a difference to me, but it does: This isn't about dying on the field in some horrible accident. This is about doing something in your 20s (or younger) that's going to make you like Jim McMahon — whose whole life is organized in a notebook by his wife, who is afraid that someday soon he's going to look at that notebook and not know who gave it to him or why — or worse, like Junior Seau, whose son would rather have a live father than a dead hero — "Is it worth it? I'm not sure. But it's not worth it for me to not have a dad. So to me, it's not worth it."
On Tuesday came news that it looks like they've found a way to identify CTE in living people. From the Gizmodo article:
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is caused by the buildup of tau proteins. Small's study, a pilot program which we took a close look at last summer, uses a specific PET marker (18F]FDDNP), which attaches itself to tau proteins and amyloid plaques—the two elements necessary to diagnose Alzheimer's. The study found tau in every participant, all former NFL players. Tau buildup is known to form after repeated blows to the head, even non-concussions, which happen on nearly every play in the NFL. So tracking tau buildup would allow us to see how much damage a player's brain has undergone.
Every player in their study. Caused by blows to the head, even the ones that don't cause concussions.
It's good to have a diagnostic tool for players and ex-players who need to know what's going on in their brains — not just for their own sakes, but for the sakes of their families. But I have to disagree with the Gizmodo article about this being a good thing for the NFL. I mean, just how much brain damage is acceptable? You scan everyone once a week, and the ones that only have a little brain damage are good to go? Or what, exactly?
And, yes, fine, there's an argument to be made that, if a grown man wants to risk his own health, that's his business. But does he have the right to risk the health and safety of his family? If you're doing something that could cause you to think it's a fine idea to kill your wife, do you really have the right to be doing it?
And what about minors? Is it really okay for parents to let their kids participate in something that not just "could" injure them, but will injure them? And not in some way a body bounces back from. We're talking permanent brain damage.
And now the real suffering of retired players and their families is coming more and more to light. We now know that this great sport robs men of themselves, makes them strangers to their families, and causes them such mental distress that too many of them would rather kill themselves than go on how they are.
Maybe professional football can continue to thrive. But when you look at those Pop Warner kids, how do you say, "Well, it's cool if you get so that you can't recognize your spouse," or, "Eh, sure, you'll kill yourself," or, "Yeah, you're going to kill your wife and kid"? Which ones of those little boys is expendable? Which one of them is it okay to damage until they get CTE?
In the coming weeks and months, we're going to hear more about players and ex-players getting tested for CTE. If it's as widespread as anecdotal data suggests, it's going to be hard for the NFL to overcome that. Not just because people like me won't watch, but because few parents will let their kids do something they know is going to give them brain damage.