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Posted by on Jul 29, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Sports Betting | 3 comments

Are You Ready for Some Footb….err, uhh — CTE?



Football has been part of my DNA ever since I lost $1 betting on the Dallas Cowboys against the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V, way back in 1970.  I’ve been chasing that elusive buck ever since.

Over the years, I’ve come to recognize what a disproportionate amount of time is wasted analyzing pre-game matchups, arguing about players and coaches, and watching college kids and grown ups tear ligaments and break bones to move an oval-shaped ball made presumably of the skin of a pig across a designated white line in order to achieve the ultimate obelisk of the game — which is scoring 6 points.  Whippee.

Of course, I’m more guilty than most, not only in sheltering the fever bug of sports fanaticism, but also promoting the duplicity through my writings, videos, and the inevitable rants after a particularly brutal weekend.  I fully recognize — and am even bothered to some degree — by the hypocrisy of this lifelong obsession with sports gambling while at the same time so often belittling the distractions of these mindless diversions within our culture.

I’m disgusted with the game, but alas I still love it so.  College football — the corrupt NCAA, the phony colleges which exploit so-called “student-athletes” while paying coaches and executives millions, and the grotesquely imbalanced ranking and bowl systems.  Pro football — billionaire owners playing pauper to gauge taxpayers for one-sided stadium deals, greedy players holding out and breaking contracts, $30 for game day parking, and way too many television commercials.  And shit referees.

Like all football fans, I bitch and moan incessantly about it all, but then I’m right there every Sunday morning and Monday night, like an addicted junkie doddering towards a needle for another fix.  Nolan Dalla — guilty as charged.

Still, I wonder about the future of football, especially in light of today’s bombshell announcement about the long-term effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.  The short version of the latest most comprehensive study ever on the subject is as follows — CTE is real.  Evidence — Out of 111 brains of deceased NFL players that were studied, 110 were found to have some form of CTE.  110 out of 111.  Ka-boom.  That means playing football over a period of time causes serious brain injury.  End of discussion.

Think about that for a moment.

Would you play pro football if given the chance?  I think most of us would say yes.  The money is just too good.  The excitement of putting on an NFL uniform would be way too cool a proposition to pass up.  Well, maybe not playing for the Rams.  But anyone else.

That said, most of us would likely take a long hard look at what we’re doing to our bodies and brains once the inevitable injuries began taking their toll.  Look at it this way:  How much is walking normally worth to you?  How much money would you need to make to sacrifice your mental faculties in the final few years of your life?  These are legitimate questions that every athlete and every parent and every wife, mother, son, and daughter should be asking of those who strap on a helmet and take the field.  The evidence is clear.

It’s one thing for a professional athlete who’s earning millions of dollars to carefully assess the serious risks of playing football.  Indeed, one can justify playing in the NFL at least a few seasons perhaps in order to live the good life and support one’s family.  That’s a risk many are willing to take and a price they are willing to pay later down the road.  But what about high school kids, college players, and those who will never earn a dollar from playing football?  Is it really worth it to endure the whiplash of getting tossed around the turf like a ragdoll playing football for Purdue?  At what point do parents and students say — stop!  it just isn’t worth it.

I suspect this study [READ MORE HERE] and the fallout of more research to come will not be good for football’s long term prospects.  Some parents already don’t want their kids playing football because, they say, it’s too risky.  As evidence mounts, recruiters must worry and now be willing to face what could become a legitimate objection to playing football, in favor of safer sports like basketball or baseball.

Will football be dead in 20 years?

It’s hard to imagine a downfall given all the money, the fame, the billion-dollar stadiums, the entertainment spectacle, and the cultural infatuation with it all.  The National Football League is the American pastime.  That’s because a fan in Macon, Georgia is every bit as interested in watching a game that takes place in Arizona or Missouri or Wisconsin as his team, the Atlanta Falcons.  This is the genius of pro football — making it into a national game.  No other sport casts such a spell over the mass populace.

The counterargument to football’s decline (for medical reasons) is the recognition that violence sells.  A few decades ago, a sport like the MMA/UFC would have been unthinkable.  Women fighting in cages would have a cultural taboo.  Now, it’s on ESPN primetime.  America loves violence.  America is obsessed with violence.  So perhaps, even the risk of ending up like a vegetable attached to a feeding tube will simply be looked at as one of the hazards of the game.  Perhaps it’s an acceptable risk.

But hey, 110 out of 111 brains — all bludgeoned with CTE?

You tell me.  What the risk?  Hell, it seems more like a certainty.

In 1975, a movie came out starring James Caan and John Houseman.  The movie didn’t do particularly well at the box office and has mostly been forgotten since, but it still left an indelible impression on those who saw it.  “Rollerball” told the story of a corporate-controlled future world where the violence of sport turns star athletes into cultural icons.  That fictionalized vision from nearly five decades appears to have become real.  So, perhaps our hunger of violence and obsession with money is so insatiable that games of violence, including football, will forever be with us.  [SEE FOOTNOTE]

So, which way will we go on pro football and CTE?  Is this really the beginning of the end for football?  Or, have we reached the inescapable dystopia reality that violence and entertainment are intertwined?


FOOTNOTE:  From the IMDB page on “Rollerball” (1975) — The game sequences were filmed in the Olympic Basketball Arena in Munich.  Munich citizens were invited to the filming to serve as spectators to the games.  Director Norman Jewison intended the movie to be anti-violence, but audiences so loved the action of the game that there was actually talk about forming rollerball leagues in the wake of the film which horrified him.




  1. I wonder if there are any similar studies showing the frequency of this affliction detected in deceased people who didn’t play football. Professional football players wear head protection all of the time they are playing the game. Most people don’t wear head protection for everyday life. Bumping your unprotected head is very common, especially as a child. Who can say any (or much) of this damage didn’t occur before these players ever started playing the game?

    Without comparable studies of deceased people who never played football, this looks more like someone is trying to lay the groundwork for currently retired players to sue the NFL for megabucks than an indication that the profession is responsible for the condition.

  2. Bob Orme’s point is legit. There’s another issue here: subject selection. The ex-players in the study were all individuals suspected of having some form of CTE by their families who agreed to make their brains available for examination. A fuller study would need to look at a sample of ex-NFL players independent of any suspected cerebral injuries.

    The estimates I’ve seen (I’ll try to track them down, Nolan) put the likelihood of CTE far lower — though still way above that of the non-sport-playing population. FWIW, there’s also growing evidence that the world’s most popular game (also called “football” — but we call it “soccer”) produces CTE at dangerously high rates. It’s all those “headers.”

    As a football junkie myself who also spent his life as a cognitive scientist my suggestion to reduce the incidence of CTE is simple: no helmets, play the game with naked heads.

  3. Steelers fan for over 65 years. 6 rings. Best franchise ever. If Rooney/Mara ruled and not Jerry Jones it could have made changes.
    Mike Webster finally convinced me. CONCUSSION WAS UT FOR ME. And the heroic Pittsburgh physician—-no more.


    Loving futball soccer with all its financing corruption

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