We are surrounded by hypocrisy, denial, and complete ignorance. The political and economic sphere of the National Football League has swollen into a cyclic route of blindness, though we allow some of the ‘light’ to enter our tunnel each time a tragedy may occur. Like a concussion, the culture of football is presented in a state of instability, with neurons no longer responding to transmitted signals, complimented by the biological processes of the brain striving to reach, yet again, a level of homeostasis within the area of damage. Players, coaches, and fans have plentifully ignored the significance of mild traumatic brain injury, and even as some, including medical professionals, strive for further awareness to make certain leaps in the right direction, football still remains as a tarnished entity that will be forever haunted by the concussion crisis. Football, in a sense, is an area of the brain that is no longer stimulated, though ‘neurons’ still send signals to such ‘target cells,’ despite the fact that such a practice of plasticity seems to receive no positive feedback.
So what do we do? We need to realize that this ‘concussion’ of a culture could have been avoided, and that there needs to be a widespread consensus on wanting to reach a period in which we can all say, “we did all that we could.” We’re not there yet, though, and I am sure it will take quite some time to revive football’s reputation in relation to this chronic pain that neuroscience has declared to be a crisis.
In 2002, the National Football League was introduced its offensive weapon that deflated its multi-billion dollar balloon. This weapon, in a sense, is the brain of former Hall of Famer Mike Webster, who played sixteen seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster’s brain was acquired by Dr. Bennet Omalu, who would later find the presence of a neurodegenerative disease in “Iron Mike.” This disease would be named chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and served as a bridge that linked Webster’s erratic behavior towards the end of his life to the years of concussive and subconcussive blows to the head.
Webster struggled significantly after his playing career ended. He had invested his money in a handful of miserably unsuccessful attempts at running businesses, and often found himself homeless, living out of his car. What was it that could have led such a successful man on the football field, filled with pride and confidence for years, to follow such a dramatic downward spiral? It was bad enough that Webster had been taking all sorts of medications to ease his aching pains and cognitive declines.
Webster was often laced with a varying, numbing cocktail of medications: Ritalin or Dexedrine to keep him calm. Paxil to ease anxiety. Prozac to ward off depression. Klonopin to prevent seizures. Vicodin or Ultram or Darvocet or Lorcet, in various combinations, to subdue the general ache. And Eldepryl, commonly prescribed to patients who suffer from Parkinson’s disease.
His brain showed signs of dementia. His head throbbed constantly. He suffered from significant hearing loss. Three lumbar vertebrae and two cervical vertebrae ached from frayed and herniated discs. A chronically damaged right heel caused him to limp. His right shoulder was sore from a torn rotator cuff. His right elbow grew stiff from once being dislocated. His knees, the cartilage in them all but gone, creaked from years of bone grinding against bone. His knuckles were scarred and swollen. His fingers bent gruesomely wayward.
What is hard to imagine, is the following…
Desperate for a few moments of peace from the acute pain, repeatedly stunning himself, sometimes a dozen times, into unconsciousness with a black Taser gun.
Webster, once a man who was admired by the majority and respected by all, had lived a life after football that crumbled into a mess of misfortune. His story, as it is one of the more famous regarding chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is similar to that of many others of former NFL players. The gridiron no longer is against another uniform; it is against dementia. This is what the National Football League hid from for so many years (and continually denied any links between dementia and football-related head injury), and so this is what the National Football League aims to fight against today… because people are concerned now more than ever.
The players of the NFL seem to be split on the topic, as many claim that the league’s recent implementations of more severe helmet-to-helmet penalties and fines are ruining the game, and is an unfair practice that seemingly targets defensive players (such as James Harrison) who play the game at 100 miles per hour, 24/7. Some say it has to be done. Or you could ask Hines Ward, who claims that such rules are going to lead to more undiagnosed concussions.
Helmet-to-helmet policies are a part of the game. They are the NFL’s response to the recent findings of CTE in their former athletes, though such policies are decades overdue. Why do people blame the league for being proactive? It is certainly clear that many players ignore the subject, and some have their eyes on it now more than ever, because they have concern for themselves and for their families. There must not be any more cases such as Mike Webster’s, where his family structure was severely damaged and his relationships with his children were seemingly altered due to his dementia-related actions. The next time you call out and say that the NFL’s rules against helmet-to-helmet hits are ‘unnecessary’ or ‘ruin the game,’ think about the families of the players on the field. I don’t care how much money the guy on the field is making; no one deserves to watch their husband, father, son, or brother lay motionless on the field, uncertain of their future.
What more can we do?
SOURCE – ESPN’s story on Mike Webster’s downward spiral