Gridiron football has never been more popular. Unquestionably the most popular sport in the United States, professional football is a ten billion dollar a year industry, and high-level college football brings in billions more. The sport is at the top of its game, and with Super Bowl XLVII coming up on Sunday, it’s easy to think that football can only continue to get more popular.
Behind the scenes, though, there is increasing concern that football could be in trouble. The sport is violent by its very nature, and that has long been understood to lead to long-term physical damage. Increasingly, however, it’s becoming apparent that there is a far worse trauma being inflicted on players — serious, irreversible, devastating traumatic brain injuries.
Until very recently, players routinely returned to games with concussions, so long as they were physically able to play – literally risking imminent death. While the NFL has taken steps over the last six years to try to prevent that, even one concussion can have serious, lifetime effects. Even if players fully recover from a concussion, they are still at risk of severe damage should they sustain another one — and that is always a danger for players in a sport where violent hitting is not just expected, but encouraged.
After players leave the game, many suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The incurable, degenerative disease has a number of pernicious effects, including depression, memory loss, and difficulty controlling emotion. Repeated concussions damage the brain’s executive function — the part of our mind responsible for rationality and goal-oriented behavior.
Needless to say, being emotionally unstable, unable to plan for the future and incapable of remembering things is a hard and painful way to live, and sadly, many are simply unable to bear up under the strain. A recent spate of suicides among former football players have been linked to CTE. Other former NFL players have sued the league for covering up what it knew about damage caused by concussions.
That may just be the tip of the iceberg: at the college and high school level, concussion protocols are less rigorous and lightly-enforced, and a high school football player who suffers multiple concussions is no less in danger of lifetime problems than a pro who does.
So as gridiron football prepares for the highlight of the year, the 47th Super Bowl, it’s worth remembering some of the men who literally gave everything they had to the game, including their memories, their stability and ultimately, their lives.
9. Nathan Stiles
Nathan Stiles isn’t a household name. He wasn’t a pro. He wasn’t even a college player. Stiles died in 2010 at age 17, collapsing at halftime of a game during his senior season in high school. He had suffered a concussion earlier in the season, and sat out for three weeks following it, but he wasn’t fully healed. He ultimately died of a brain hemorrhage — while he’d been cleared to play, he was not fully healed. Like many players, he tried to hide the pain, so he could get back on the field for his final game. (He admitted to his girlfriend that he was dizzy the day before the game, but told neither his parents nor coaches.) A hit in that final game caused bleeding on the brain. An autopsy of his brain done by Boston University showed Stiles was already suffering from early signs of CTE.
8. Mike Borich
Mike Borich died at 42, committing suicide after overdosing on medication. The former college wide receiver had suffered from depression and out-of-control behavior. Borich played football in the 1980s, before the effects of concussions were widely known. His father says he may have suffered from nine or ten over his career. A post-mortem autopsy showed Borich was afflicted with CTE.
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