Thursday, May 3, 2012

Are you not entertained?!

“There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart's desire. The other is to gain it.”
― George Bernard Shaw
Countless millions of children, mostly young boys, have dreams of becoming a professional athlete. The psychological makeup of many Americans involves a component that thrives on competition. It drives so many of our activities in life, particularly sports.

When a favorite team loses, do you make a spectacle of yourself? Have you ever yelled at the television? How many times have you not wanted to even talk to someone after losing even a pickup game? Face it, Americans love competition, and we love a winner. At whatever the cost.

That cost ― that price ― has become too high. Today, former NFL linebacker Junior Seau was found dead in his California home from a reportedly self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Seau is remembered not only for his great play on the field, but for his bizarre behavior after his career ended.

In October of 2010, Seau survived an accident where his vehicle plunged over a cliff, falling over 100 feet before crashing. This incident occurred shortly after Seau had been arrested for domestic abuse of his then girlfriend.
According to an ESPN report, Seau's ex-wife stated she and each of her three children with Junior all received text messages saying, "I love you." Other family members and former teammates seemed in genuine shock, noting that Seau was always upbeat and helpful, with rare 'down' moments.

What prompted Seau to take his own life?

When I read about Seau's death, the eerie circumstances immediately reminded me of former Chicago Bears star defensive back, Dave Duerson.
Duerson was a four time Pro-Bowl defender who sustained more than 10 concussions in 11 seasons of professional football. After his playing career ended, Duerson underwent a series of examinations by Boston University scientists and medical professionals.

The study of Duerson revealed he was "suffering from a moderately advanced case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma."
CTE presents in several stages. The first is characterized by its disturbances and psychotic symptoms. In the second stage, patients suffer from erratic behavior, memory loss, and the initial symptoms of what resembles Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's. The final stage is full blown dementia and loss of many cognitive abilities.

According to BU and accounts from family, Duerson started presenting symptoms when we was approximately 40 years old. He subsequently took his own life in February of 2011, shooting himself in the chest, so that his brain could be further studied, post-mortem.

Since Duerson's death, his family is suing the NFL for wrongful death, claiming the league did not provide the safest environment possible for players, nor did they adequately educate players on the dangers of concussions and other injuries. The lawsuit also named Riddel, manufacturer of NFL helmets, asserting their helmets could have been made with more appropriate protection for players.

Though Seau's reasons for suicide are unknown, authorities would be remiss if they didn't conduct an autopsy to determine if significant brain damage had occurred. I'm not willing to assert the NFL is to blame for his death, or Duerson's, but the issue deserves further investigation.

Diagnosing CTE is relatively new, but not without precedent.  Boston University has completed studies on other athletes in football and other violent games.  Lou Creekmur was a former lineman in the NFL who died in 2009 from dementia, and scans of his brain revealed no signs of Alzheimer's or other neurodegenerative diseases.

A Washington Post article appeared shortly after Creekmur's death detailing the circumstances of his brain damage, which included an overall shrinking of the brain and loss of tissue in areas of the brain needed for learning and language. 

The seriousness of the danger involved with football was underscored by the Boston University's study of Mike Borich.  Borich never played in the NFL but did play major college football and suffered significant trauma that caused an advanced case of CTE.  He died in 2009 at the age of 42 from drug overdose.  No conclusive connection can be made between his drug use and CTE, though family members told the New York Times they were convinced a correlation exists.

Incidentally, shortly after Duerson's family filed suit in federal court, 11 other former players filed a similar class-action lawsuit against the NFL, which, as of February of 2012, has grown to over 130 former players and families.  Other players have filed individual suits in various states around the country.  Among other complaints, the players accuse "... the league of having used a 'hand-picked committee of physicians' to misrepresent evidence of the effects of head trauma, particularly concussions." 

Several other players are exhibiting early symptoms of CTE, such as memory loss.  Theresa Foley, wife of former Jets quarterback Glenn Foley, described her husband returning from the local grocery store with nothing because he could not remember what he had set out to buy.  He had forgotten he had a list of items in his pocket. 

Clearly, a problem exists.  Critics of the lawsuits filed by former players are quick to point out that football is a violent game and men know the risks of playing when they join the profession.  Additionally, the realm of professional sports is, like any career, considered risk versus reward.  And many players reap large sums of money from playing a children's game, for our entertainment.  Should we now feel sympathetic to the point where we financially reward people who should already have the money to care for themselves?

The deeper implications of brain trauma in professional sports leads to an unnerving possibility, that the management side of the NFL (and other sports) have less concern for players than their ability to generate billions of dollars in revenue.  Yet, I can't entirely blame the NFL for this phenomenon.

The league administration has implemented a large number of changes in the dangerous techniques permitted in game play, including the ban of "head slapping," "horse collar tackles," "helmet to helmet" contact, and "spear tackling."  Moreover, the NFL has implemented heavy suspensions and fines for those who do not comply.  Strangely, the players, coaches, fans, and commentators all cry 'foul' when hefty penalties are imposed for legal tactics.  We call the victims of these illegal moves 'soft,' or denigrate their toughness for not being able to play through injury.  In fact, fans might be the great catalyst in creating a more dangerous game. Can society truly place the blame on the NFL when they only give the consumer what they want? 

Fans want the big hits, the violent collisions, "pancake" blocks, running backs absorbing hits and delivering punishment to defenders.  We love it.  This is our entertainment, and players are not people. 
These athletes are our modern day gladiators.  We pay enormous sums of money to see them play in their arena, spend countless hours following news about them, dress in their apparel, and cheer for them relentlessly. 

They bleed, they play injured, and we laud them for it.  And when they are no longer able to compete at that high level, we discard them with little regard for their well-being.

The sport has become less about a great game, and more about business, more about violence.  As a result, the men who play the game we all wished we could have become something less than human  ― mere entertainment.  And the only appropriate description for that, is tragic.

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