Football Safety: Why I Broke Up With the Sport

A sportswriter and longtime fan won’t be tuning in to watch football anymore, and the reasoning behind his decision is a must-read for everyone.

Football Safety: Why I Broke Up With the SportCourtesy University of Pennsylvania AthleticsPenn captain Owen Thomas hanged himself at 21.
I can’t watch football because of Ann McKee, MD, a neuropathologist and codirector of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, who studies the brains of deceased football players. We met in the morgue. McKee held a white plastic bin that contained a human brain, immersed in preservative fluid, yellow-green and translucent. It looked pickled.

“This is from a 29-year-old individual,” she said. “There’s been a shrinkage of the brain.”

Another bin. “This is from a retired NFL player. It shows atrophy. Shrinkage of the cortex. Shrinkage of the deep cortex.”

Another bin. Another former pro. “Very small temporal lobes. This looks like CTE. Wow. Pretty amazing. I think this will be a good case.”

McKee was speaking as a research scientist. As a football fan—as the kid sister of two brothers who played the sport—she knows the larger truth. There are no good cases. Football hits pull the brain like Silly Putty, stretching and shearing nerve cells. Some hits cause concussions. Some do not. The damage accumulates, regardless: Boston University researchers estimate that the average high school lineman takes 1,000 to 1,500 hits to the head each season, some at forces equivalent to or greater than a 25-mile-an-hour car crash.

The result can be found in the white plastic bins. Or in these tragedies: Former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, dead at 44 from shooting himself. Former University of Pennsylvania football captain Owen Thomas, dead at 21 from hanging himself. Former NFL safety Dave Duerson, dead at 50 from shooting himself, purposely in the chest, so that his brain could come here.

“You look at these brains, and it’s like, ‘It wasn’t really him. It was the disease,’” says McKee.

The Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has released test results for the brains of 20 deceased football players. Nineteen showed evidence of CTE. McKee has many more brains to examine, and hundreds more are pledged by athletes who are still alive.

These are the words McKee uses to describe the clinical symptoms of CTE: Impulsivity. Disinhibition. Volatility. Problems with depression and emotional control. And this is how Mike Webster, later diagnosed with the disease, spent his final months: living in his truck, squeezing Super Glue on his rotting teeth, shooting himself with a Taser gun to sleep, and sniffing ammonia to stay awake.

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  • Your Comments

    • Brett

      It’s about the way you play football, kids can be taught to play safely, and they do in MANY places. It’s sad to see so many people abandon the sport instead of address the issues of safe play.

    • Stricky1

      Also when i am playing in my highschool football games i am not hitting the guy across me in a personal way. i am not trying to hurt them in the least way possible i am just doing it because its the sport and i love it. If i were to serously injure someone i would feel very bad on my part because the goal is not to hurt people it is to just bring them down to the ground

    • Stricky1

      I guess we have to ban cars they give brain injuries guys

    • Bryson’s Nana

      I know first hand what can happen to football players.  My 17 year old brother died from two brain concussions he received while playing high school football when his helmet came off during a pile-up on the field.  He didn’t die right then……he started having very bad headaches about two weeks later.  My mother took him to the doctor.  The doctor misdiagnosed him as having a sinus infection.  Did my brother tell the doctor about the helmet coming off?  That we don’t know because my brother did not want my mother go in with him while he saw the doctor.  Unfortunately, my brother died while in an ambulance on the way to the hospital after collapsing during  a scrimage game on a Saturday morning about two weeks after seeing the doctor.    My brother’s autospy report showed two brain concussions…… in the back of his head, and one in the front over his left eye.  Had my brother lived, and had he been able to survive the extensive brain surgeries that would have been necessary in 1962, the doctors told my parents he would have been left in a vegetative state.  While all sports carry some degree of danger, I feel that football in one of the most dangerous sports today.  Yes, many improvements have been made to helments, pads, etc.  However, I don’t feel it is safe for the brain to be bounced around in the skulls of the players.  Damage will be done!  Did my son play football while in high school?  No way!  Will my grandson be allowed to play when he is in highschool?  I certainly hope not!

    • cv

      I feel the same way about boxing. I wish there would be no boxing anymore

    • Rudolph Andrew Furtado

      Every sport has its negative aspects which can be detrimental to the sportspersons health .”BOXING” and Mumhammed.Ali have become famous for the ill-eefects of a sport and the same is the case in “AMERICAN FOOTBALL”.Just because a sport is more dangerous than another sport doesn’t mean that it should be banned or boycotted. Isn’t motogp or Formula-1 dangerous?

    • Dmuellenberg

      If the author doesn’t want to watch football, then that is his right, just like it’s my right to watch or play football if I want to. That’s the definition of a free country. If we try and ban any sport that may cause an injury, then we are talking about every sport. Yes, football is more violent than most, but as the author pointed out, players know the risks involved. I don’t understand how former players can blame the NFL for their injuries when they knew it was a violent sport and injuries are part of the game. Players aren’t playing it just for entertainment, they are playing it for the big money they make, but again, it’s a free country and it’s their choice. 

    • JYK98

      Thank you, Mr. Hruby, for writing this timely article.  I haven’t been able to watch football for years ever since I found out how horrible the lives of ex-players are except for the very few.  Not everyone retires rich, and often many become destitute and unable to work due to football injuries.  And NFL seems content to continue the use-and-discard policy.  Just think of the wasted lives of these young men in the name of sports.

      • Melvin Satterwhite Jr

        They had a choice to engage in this sport and I do not see anyone putting a “gun” to their heads and forcing them to play. You feel for these players but they did know the risk of playing.

    • Barry Levy

      Funny thing is that Rugby plays a similar violent game without pads and helmets and nobody is that concerned, and then their is boxing, which has spawned Mixed Martial arts combat, and that is hugely popular.

      So let’s ban 16 oz. soft drinks, and salt, and lets just control everything, and surprise people will still have problems and die.

    • Daphne Davis

       I like sports. My favorite sport is track and field. I also like basketball. Sylvester Toe Jr. has an older sister, Cassandra. Sylvester Toe Jr. was a boy in my dad’s church. I was born in 1987. My older sister, Elizabeth, was born in 1985. My dad was born on November 23, 1945. Morgan Bruner has an older brother, Thomas. I have an older sister, Elizabeth. Alex Clark has a younger brother, Greyson. Alex Clark was a girl in my church.