There was no suicide note. Austin was a happy, healthy kid. A good student. Popular and well liked, the type of guy you hope your daughter dates.
The Boston center physicians examined his brain. They didn’t find CTE, but they did find a multifocal axonal injury, damage to fibers that connect nerve cells. Doctors strongly suspect the injury led to Austin’s sudden, inexplicable decision. Gil and Michelle have since become advocates for concussion safety. Grieving parents seek them out, anguished calls and e-mails from people they’ve never met. The Trenums are the bravest people I know. Still, they hurt. They live with a hole. It will never be filled.
“Even when we have a good day, we still know he’s gone,” Michelle says. “We can be happy. We can laugh with our friends. But we still know.”
Boys and young men—whose brains are still developing—are more vulnerable to football-induced head trauma. Last year, the NFL placed certified athletic trainers in press boxes to watch for concussions, while NFL Players’ Association executive committee member Scott Fujita called for sideline deployment of independent neurologists. Can high schools or Pop Warner leagues afford the same safeguards? According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, only 42 percent of high schools in 2010 even had access to a certified athletic trainer educated in concussion care.
Robert Cantu, MD, a leading sports concussion expert, says in a new book that children under 14 years of age shouldn’t play collision sports under current rules, an argument he suspects will “tick some people off.” However, I wonder if Cantu goes far enough. College football is a multibillion-dollar, taxpayer-subsidized business. That’s a lot of public investment in head trauma.
Football’s popularity seems to grow every year. How long will that last? My colleague Will Leitch recently asked in New York magazine if following football was morally wrong. “There are no big TV contracts or player salaries without fans tuning in. We’re all part of the problem,” he wrote.
Are we? Am I? I know only this: There’s definitely a problem, an ugly one, and I’ve seen too much of it to keep watching.