As we head toward the climax of the football season, with just four teams left on the path to the Superbowl, we read in the New York Times (registration required) that the big hits we cheer for may be causing permanent damage.
In November, Andre Waters, a 44 year old former safety for the Philadelphia Eagles, killed himself. He may have been a great safety, but he did not perform his job safely. He was famous for his relentless style and his ferocious hits. Waters thought he might have had as many as 15 concussions during his career. "I just wouldn't say anything. I'd sniff some smelling salts, then go back in there."
For the moment, we will pass on the question whether Waters's death - despite the wilful intent - is work-related and possibly compensable under workers comp.
Chris Nowinski, a former lineman for Harvard and professional wrestler, convinced Waters's family to provide brain tissues for testing. The results revealed the brain of an 85 year old man with early stage Alzheimer's. Nowinski himself suffers from bouts of depression, which he relates directly to his half dozen concussions. "I have maybe a small window of understanding that other people don't," he says, "just because I have certain bad days when my brain doesn't work as well as it does on other days...But I know and understand...because I know it'll probably be fine tomorrow." Of course, Nowinski is only 28 years old. I wonder how he'll feel at 44.
The NFL policy on concussions is what you might label "wishful thinking." They allow players who sustain a concussion to return to play the same day if they appear to have recovered. Despite a concussion, the Jets' Laveranues Coles was available during the playoffs, as is the Colts' Cato June, who suffered a concussion last week and who looks forward to jamming his helmet in the bodies of the New England Patriots this week. The NFL's mild traumatic brain injury committee has published several papers in the journal Neurosurgery defending the practice. They see no signs of neurocognitive decline among the players returning to "work" immediately after being injured. But Nowinski points out that these studies are limited to active players. When you look at players after retirement, the picture is not so rosy.
In a survey of more than 2,500 former players, the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes found that those who had sustained three or more concussions were three times more likely to develop earlier onset of Alzheimer's. A new study finds a similar correlation with depression. That's after just three concussions. The odds against Andre Waters, with his 15 or so concussions, must have been formidable.
Let the Games Begin!
Humankind needs danger-ridden spectacles. We cheer on our gladiators, even as we deride the behemoths from the other city. According to Wikipedia, the Roman gladiators were less prone to killing off the losers than Hollywood has led us to believe. Some died, some lived to fight another day. After three years of toil, the best-performing gladiators of old could retire and live the good life. Not all that different from modern times. But at what price? When the spectators have left the stadium, when the awards have all been handed out, we're left with the walking wounded, the ones who paid the price. It's enough to give us pause, but not for long, as we breathlessly look forward to the Sunday kick off.