The Future of Football: Coming to Terms with CTE

Credit: Getty Images / Tetra Images / Winslow Productions

There was a time in my life where the first day of football season was my favorite holiday of the year. Not even Christmas morning could match the promise of another season of my favorite sport. The game brought intrigue with new configurations of players and coaches. It brought emotions with blossoming new superstars, season-altering injuries, and, of course, the unfettered optimism that your team could win it all. Perhaps most importantly, it brought drama with the buzz of pregame shows and players talking shit, fans talking shit, and bragging rights on the line.

As a kid growing up in a small town, you have to make the most of your hobbies. For a long time, football was it for me. It served as a stabilizing force. The sport helped me maintain sanity throughout high school. When I was sitting in geometry class in high school, dreaming of being anywhere but there, football was my saving grace. I would think about who my teams were playing that weekend and how they might game plan. (My teams were the Carolina Panthers and Ohio State Buckeyes — I know what you’re thinking, but how a native Floridian stumbled on that peculiar combo is an entirely different story altogether.) Football season was also a precursor to fall, undeniably the best season. (Also a different story.)

Football’s most significant place in my life has been as a bonding agent. I’m from a place in Florida that could only be described as Trump country. It may not have been a conscious thought, but I knew from an early age that I didn’t fit in in my hometown. For many years, my goal was to get out and move to Charlotte, NC (for those Panthers’ season tickets, first and foremost). In retrospect, I realize how out-of-place I must’ve been. Judging by how many people I know that have happily settled down in or around their hometown (both in Florida and in my current home in Washington, DC), it doesn’t seem super normal for a nine-year-old to be so eager to move. Some of that had to do with the weather, the culture, and my own values, but I didn’t consider those things until later. Much of it was interest-driven. Simply said, I liked punk rock, not country music.

My other big interest was comic books. Most of my peers had little interest in superheroes. Comic books are in vogue now, but at the time, the general public was only familiar with Iron Man because of Ozzy Osbourne. An interest like that would’ve made me an easy mark for bullies in a hyper-masculine town, but I had something that most nerds didn’t: an interest in sports. Thanks to an excess of free time and an obsessive personality, I knew football better than the best of them. As an awkward teen (and, let’s be honest, an equally awkward adult), sports have proven an invaluable tool for connecting with people that I otherwise would have nothing in common with. Football was chief among those tools. Football united different cliques and different fandoms. It was something we could all discuss on Monday morning.

Football season kicked off this weekend, but I’m not a kid on Christmas morning anymore. Basketball has long since surpassed football as my favorite sport, and sports are exceptionally less important to me now. Those in my life can attest to the fact that, as a kid, my mood for an entire week would hinge on the outcome of the last Panthers game. I came to realize that those feelings were not healthy or fair to those around me, and as an adult, you have a number of other things to keep you distracted from your inevitable mortality. (What? You were going to start thinking about it again anyway.)

Off-the-field issues are part of the reason why football has lost much of its luster to me. Without even mentioning the domestic violence incidents that have plagued football or the kneeling-during-the-anthem controversy (both worthy of their own think pieces), and looking just in the last calendar year, a University of Maryland player lost his life due to heatstroke, Ohio State prioritized winning over all else, and new Panthers owner David Tepper revealed that he is contractually obligated to keep a 13-foot statue of team founder and alleged workplace harasser Jerry Richardson up outside the stadium. All nauseating stories that don’t seem to happen in other sports. It’s true that football, as a more popular sport, has a magnifying glass on it, but the issues point to a larger cultural problem within the game.

Meanwhile, with week one of the NFL starting last Thursday, football season has officially started in earnest. My standard jubilation has been tempered by internal strife. The jubilation is there all the same, but it’s been counterbalanced by dread and disgust. Football, once a seminal part of my identity, is now spoiled by guilt and apprehension. As with the souring of a friendship, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where things turned, but if I had to guess, I’d wager it was Thursday, September 8, 2016.

College football has always mattered to me, but it pales in comparison to the real thing: the NFL. It goes without saying, then, that the Panthers have always been my ride or die franchise. September 8, 2016, came seven months after the Panthers suffered a brutal and unexpected loss at the hands of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. The teams were scheduled to play again the following regular season, and the NFL decided that the rematch should come on opening night.

The game was nasty and physical for a week one contest. This didn’t come as a huge surprise to me; the teams had just played for a championship and emotions were running high on both sides. What did come as a huge surprise to me, though, was the way Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton was treated. Over the last decade, the NFL has instituted a number of rule changes in the interest of player safety, and quarterback safety, in particular, has been a sticking point. Watching the game, however, you wouldn’t know it. Newton was lambasted by a number of illegal, helmet-to-helmet hits. The Broncos were only flagged for one of them, which happened to be offset by a penalty committed by the Panthers on the same play.

Concussions suffered by Newton and his teammate, linebacker Luke Kuechly, caused me to investigate the long-term impacts of concussions. According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease found [those] with a history of repetitive brain trauma… Some common changes seen include impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia. As the disease progresses, some patients may experience problems with thinking and memory, including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia.” The decline in quality of life for those suffering from CTE is terrifying.

Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide on January 16, 2018. Five months later, his family revealed the details of his autopsy. Not only did Hilinski suffer from CTE, but his brain resembled that of a 65-year-old man. Hilinski’s suicide cannot be definitively attributed to CTE, or football for that matter, but it’s tough to argue that the game did not have an impact given the circumstances and what we understand about the disease. In 2012, former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself. Belcher’s brain was later revealed to have CTE. NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau committed suicide only two years after retiring from the league, and an autopsy revealed that Seau was also suffering from the neurodegenerative disease.

A Boston University study inspecting 202 the brains of football players also found that 99% of NFL players, 91% of college football players, and 21% of high school players suffered from CTE. If CTE only impacted those playing the game later in life, the philosophical ramifications would be easier to debate, but the appearance of the disease in uncompensated players complicates the matter. The choice of whether or not to play a sport for the love of the game, for a collegiate scholarship, or for a paycheck is ultimately an individual’s personal choice, but I would question whether any of us are truly equipped to make that decision. Getting paid millions to play a game is an easy decision, especially when, for many players, football is the only way out of a bad situation, but the decline in quality of decades of life and potential stresses and dangers to those around you are also immeasurable.

It’s true that other sports carry injury risk. Basketball players can suffer long-term back, knee, and foot problems. However, medical science is making strides in player longevity, and I would argue that those injuries are less incapacitating than losing your memory or impulse control. It’s also true that other sports, like hockey and soccer, can cause or contribute to CTE, but the disease is far more central to American football. The game’s popularity also means that more people will be affected. Although concussions are a major factor, any repetitive brain injury (like making a tackle or hitting your head against the turf) can cause damage. Players are only getting bigger, faster, and stronger as time goes by, and modern equipment and player safety rules are unable to keep up (if they ever were).

This would be an ideal time for the NFL or NCAA to step in with solutions, but neither league seems interested in anything beyond the bottom line. I’m not sure the game can safely continue in its current form. Two people launching into each other at full speed is a recipe for permanent brain damage unless medical science makes an unexpected breakthrough. If that breakthrough never comes, we’re faced with two scenarios: 1) the game continues in its current form and players are continually debilitated by it, or 2) the game becomes safer and practically unrecognizable, likely closer to flag football than its current iteration.

For my fandom, I’m not sure what comes next. I will watch less football this year, there’s no question about that. There’s something instinctual about turning on a football game on a Monday night in November. There is no guidebook on losing the ability to stomach one of the core aspects of your being. I am placating my loss of football with the other kind of football; I have taken a more serious interest in the English Premier League. Although I will miss the spectacular plays and strategy of the game, I will miss the interpersonal connections more than anything.

While I plan to start weaning myself off of American football this year, the sport’s cultural imprint isn’t going anywhere. Outdated systems often endure because those who could intervene turn a blind eye. The consequences of playing football are clear, but we distance ourselves from those facts because they are uncomfortable to confront. How could something that brings so much joy to so many also maim, handicap, and, in more cases than we care to admit, kill? Football’s future could be decided by an equipment company or a scientific breakthrough, but I doubt it.

The sport’s future will be determined by its leagues, players, and fans. The game remains America’s favorite sport by a considerable margin. Until the NCAA and its universities and the NFL and its 32 owners see an appreciable drop in ratings, the game will continue as maiming, handicapping, and killing. The flag football version wouldn’t inspire the fervor of the collision-based sport we love, but it’s a substitute I hope to see in my lifetime. For me, it’s better than living with the guilt.

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