We turn up our collective noses at the brutality of Ancient Rome’s gladiatorial combat games. These bloody, brutal and deadly contests were decadent displays of an indulgent, yet morally primitive culture, we tell ourselves. Athletes were slaughtered for the entertainment of the Roman citizens—sacrificed for their amusement. Every gasp in disgust at what the ancient Romans did in the Colosseum suggests that we somehow think we are better than that.
Enter chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It’s a progressive degenerative disease caused by concussions, what’s referred to as “repetitive mild traumatic brain injuries” or the much more graphic term “brain slosh.” CTE has four documented stages. It’s most prevalent in boxers, football players and hockey players. The symptoms are depression, confusion, impulsivity, aggression, memory loss, dementia and suicide.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the death of Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher, the 25-year-old who shot the mother of his 3-month-old multiple times before going to the Chiefs’ practice facility and shooting himself in the head as the team’s general manager, head coach and linebacker coach looked on, we have to mention the other cases just diagnosed this month. Because of a new way to test for CTE ante mortem, better known as the UCLA method, it was discovered last week that four NFL players show signs of the disease: Mark Duper of the Miami Dolphins, Pro Football Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Joe DeLamielleure, and All-Pro defensive lineman Leonard Marshall.
The results are preliminary. Studies suggest it’s far more widespread than that.
A study published mere hours after Belcher’s murder/suicide last year, by BRAIN, a journal of neurology reported, “Of the 35 former professional American football players (34 National Football League and one Canadian Football League), one showed no disease (Case 27, age 26 years), three had stage I/IV disease, three had stage II/IV, nine had stage III/IV disease, seven had stage IV/IV disease, two had CTE plus Alzheimer’s disease, four had CTE plus Lewy body disease, two had CTE plus Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body disease, four had CTE plus frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD) and three had CTE and motor neuron disease (CTE-MND).”
There is a clear connection between sports concussions and this family-crushing disease. As someone with relatives who have degenerative neurological disorders, it strikes me that CTE is a mostly avoidable ailment. Since that appears to be the case, steps should be taken to stop “brain slosh,” to stop families from anguishing from its well-documented effects. This is akin to preventable Parkinson’s. This is like preventable Alzheimer’s. If we know the cause (we do) then we can eradicate it.
Right? The step professional, college and high school football leagues have taken is to give their athletes new helmets. And then there was the inevitable study two weeks ago by University of Wisconsin which concluded, “Contrary to manufacturer claims, lower risk and severity of SRC [sports related concussion] were not associated with a specific helmet brand. Rates of SRC were similar for players wearing newer versus older helmets.”
New helmets are not going to prevent new cases of CTE.
We will continue to see stories of football players committing suicide. We will continue to hear about hockey players with predictable neurological diseases. We will see more headlines about these tragedies. Yes, more of our adored and fawned-over sports heroes will die as a result of playing their game.
Why? For our entertainment. Sacrificed for our amusement.