Football’s Brain Drain: The Rest of the Story

It’s time to Break It Down!

A couple of years ago, in November, the movie Concussion debuted. The film told a story, based on groundbreaking research, on a disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or more familiarly, CTE. The picture is a biographical sports drama film directed and written by Peter Landesman, based on the exposé “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, published in 2009 by GQ magazine. Will Smith portrayed Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who fought against the National Football League, which was trying to suppress his research on what in 2002, the time frame in which the movie was set, was a little known disease.

That was then. Today, much more is known about the deadly disease, though still, not nearly enough. As a result of continually emerging data, which can only be accessed through autopsying deceased subjects, a number of pro football players have donated their brains to science in support of continuing efforts to learn more about how the disease works, and to promote more effective strategies, methods, and techniques to combat the debilitating, and ultimately deadly consequences of CTE.

Yesterday, Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Sapp indicated via video on The Players’ Tribune that he plans to donate his brain to science in order to aid the research. He spent most of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he won a Super Bowl, and ended his playing days with the Oakland Raiders.

Sapp, a 13-year NFL pro said an email he received from former running back Fred Willis, and his own experience with cognitive issues were key factors in leading to his decision. He said he wanted to leave the game better than he found it, and he noted further:

“I’ve also started to feel the effects of the hits that I took in my career. My memory ain’t what it used to be. And yeah, it’s scary to think that my brain could be deteriorating, and that maybe things like forgetting a grocery list, or how to get to a friend’s house I’ve been to a thousand times are just the tip of the iceberg. So when it comes to concussions, CTE and how we can make our game safer for future generations, I wanted to put my two cents in—to help leave the game better off than it was when I started playing.”

Sapp also referenced another Hall of Fame defender, Nick Buoniconti, a former New England Patriot and Miami Dolphin. Nick was a key player on the Dolphins’ historic 1972 undefeated Season. In May, Buoniconti told S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated that he “feels like a child” because of his cognitive issues. According to that story, Buoniconti’s Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans (a nuclear medicine functional imaging technique), were consistent with Parkinsonian Syndrome and CTE.

According to an ESPN.com report this past April, William Weinbaum and Steve Delsohn wrote that Boston University researcher, Dr. Ann McKee, examined the brains of 48 former NFL players. Of those, 47 of the brains showed signs of CTE. In a September 2015 study, researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University said they found CTE in 87 of the 91 brains they had studied belonging to former NFL players.

Sapp had a number of other reflections, including:

  • “We’re playing in a macho league and we’re talking about Hall of Famers now who are immortalized forever, made busts and everything. Legends of the game, There’s no way any of us wanna really admit that we can’t remember how to get home or a grocery list that the wife has given us or how to go pick up our kids from the school, or whatever it may be.”
  • “You try to [say], ‘All right, I’m gonna get a little more sleep — maybe it’s something I did last night, maybe something I drank,’ or whatever it is. You try to find a reason that it’s not that it’s my brain, that I’m not deteriorating right before my own eyes.”
  • “It’s the most frightening feeling, but it’s also a very weakening feeling because you feel like a child. I need help. I need somebody to help me find something that I could’ve found with my eyes closed, in the dead of night, half asleep.”
  • “I used to call myself an elephant in the room. Never forget anything. Man I wake up now and be like, ‘OK, what are we doing? Let me get the phone.”’
  • “And it’s from the banging we did as football players. We used to tackle them by the head, used to grab facemasks. We used to allow Deacon Jones to do the head slap. All of that was something that we had to take away from the game. We used to hit quarterbacks below the knees. Now it’s a strike zone. Let’s keep making the game better.”

Sapp suggested that improvements should begin at the youth level by eliminating tackling until players get to high school. It’s a start. Needless to say, football, which has been elevated to America’s game, is a contact sport. Fans and players alike frequently view any effort to make the game more humane, more civilized, or just plain more safe, with a jaundiced eye. It’s fair to say, extraordinary steps may be required to save the game from itself. I think Mr. Sapp has the right idea. But then again, I’m not a huge fan of the game. But I’m sure that’s redundant. That’s beside the point. For now, let’s focus on today’s post, “Football’s Brain Drain: The Rest of the Story!”

I’m done; holla back!

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Consult the links below for more detailed information on a variety of aspects relating to this post:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concussion_(2015_film)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronic_traumatic_encephalopathy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positron_emission_tomography

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2716796-warren-sapp-to-donate-brain-to-cte-concussion-research

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_Sapp

http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/19688877/warren-sapp-says-donate-brain-research

https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/2017/06/20/warren-sapp-donating-brain-research-concussions-cte/413206001/

http://www.latimes.com/sports/nfl/la-sp-warren-sapp-donate-brain-20170620-story.html

https://sports.yahoo.com/warren-sapp-opens-will-donate-brain-concussion-research-221641202.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Buoniconti

4 thoughts on “Football’s Brain Drain: The Rest of the Story

  1. What we do for glory, money and macho fame. I smell opposition due to loss of revenue since football will not be guts and blood.

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  2. How do you broach this subject with someone close to you who played the game like Sapp and Buoniconti and had Superbowl wins? How can you ask them if they are having problems? You really can’t, respectfully, you really can’t, even if it’s your relative.

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    • No doubt, it’s a sensitive subject with no easy, and maybe no right answer. However, as friends and relatives, we are counted upon for just those moments. It’s why we occupy that special space in people’s life. Having a firm grasp of what’s happening may be a key component of how one proceeds with the rest of their life. Even if it just a matter of developing management and coping techniques like those Sapp discussed.

      Obviously, a certain level of self awareness is helpful. However, sometimes, no matter the subject, we can’t get there without outside intervention. If you sense this is I play, and you really care about the person, you should at least try to find a way to broach the subject. It’s the right thing to do. Not easy…but right.

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