There’s a scene early in the film, Jerry Maguire, about a sports agent, that ultimately causes the central character to pivot from sales B.S. to honest concern.
It happens when the fast-talking Maguire learns that his hockey-player client is sent to the hospital after yet another punishing concussion. The agent arrives in the room just as the doctor is checking to see if his patient knows his own name and those of other family members. It’s a routine physicians repeat with patients thousands of times.
Groggy and struggling, the player manages to squeak by, adding, “I gotta play, Doc. If I play 65 percent of the games, I make my bonus.”
Outside the room, the player’s young son confronts the agent. “Mr. Maguire, this is his fourth concussion. Shouldn’t somebody get him to stop?”
Maguire looks up from his phone long enough to make his stock sales pitch that he’s repeated thousands of times to family members.
“It would take a tank to stop your dad. It would take all five super-trooper VR warriors to stop your dad. Right?” he asks looking at the kid. “RIGHT?!”
The kid just glares back, knowing what Maguire won’t admit to: the kid’s interested in his dad’s welfare; Maguire’s interested in his paycheck.
Jerry Maguire was released in 1996 when we all knew about concussions. What most of us did not understand was C.T.E. – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – a degenerative disease found in people who have suffered repeated blows to the head.
“The image above is from the brain of Ollie Matson, who played 14 seasons in the N.F.L. — after winning two medals on the track at the 1952 Helsinki Games. He died in 2011 at age 80 after being mostly bedridden with dementia, his nephew told The Associated Press, adding that Matson hadn’t spoken in four years.”
Another of several brain images highlighted in a sobering and frank story in The New York Times (July 25), is that of ’70s quarterback Ken Stabler. While Stabler died from colon cancer at the age of 69, he requested that his brain be examined.
“Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist, has examined the brains of 202 deceased football players. A broad survey of her findings was published on Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
“…McKee, found that [Stabler] had a ‘moderately severe’ case of C.T.E. The lesions were widespread, she told The Times.
“The trauma of repetitive blows to the head triggers degeneration in brain tissue, including the buildup of an abnormal protein called tau. Thin slices of tissue are dyed and the tau shows up as these darker areas.
- C.T.E. often affects the superior frontal cortex, an area important for cognition and executive function, including working memory, planning and abstract reasoning.
- The insula may be involved in C.T.E. — an area of the brain important in emotion, social perception and self-awareness.
- The amygdala is often severely affected. It is important in emotional control, aggression and anxiety.
- C.T.E. frequently damages the mammillary bodies, an area important in memory.
“The brains of the 13 linebackers,” The Times continues, “do not include the most high-profile of them all, Junior Seau. Seau, 43, whose brain was examined by the National Institutes of Health, killed himself with a gunshot to his chest in May 2012. Suicide is not uncommon among players who suffer the effects of C.T.E., but Dr. McKee and other researchers caution that no correlation between the two has been firmly established.
“Linebackers, like linemen, sustain many sub-concussive blows to the head, the ones that show no immediate symptoms but can have a cumulative impact over time. Dr. McKee has said that linebackers who play in the league for 10 years could sustain upward of 15,000 of these sub-concussive hits.
“Tyler Sash was found dead of an accidental overdose of pain medications on Sept. 8, 2015. He was 27.
“Sash had played safety for the Giants on their 2011 Super Bowl team after playing the position in college at Iowa. The Giants released him in 2013 after he sustained what was believed to be his fifth concussion.
“ ‘Those concussions are the ones we definitely know about,’ his older brother Josh said. ‘If you’ve played football, you know there are often other incidents.’
“Despite Sash’s young age, his family requested that his brain be examined for C.T.E. because he was showing uncharacteristic signs of confusion, memory loss and fits of anger.
“Their suspicions were confirmed. Dr. McKee said at the time that: ‘Even though he was only 27, he played 16 years of football, and we’re finding over and over that it’s the duration of exposure to football that gives you a high risk for C.T.E. Certainly, 16 years is a high exposure.’
“Dr. McKee found the disease at a level similar to that found in Seau’s brain, and it was in the region of the brain that is consistent with the symptoms he was exhibiting.
“Sash’s mother, Barnetta Sash, said: ‘Now it makes sense. The part of the brain that controls impulses, decision-making and reasoning was damaged badly.’ ”
Out of 111 brains tested, only 1 tested negative for C.T.E.
“In addition to the 111 brains from those who played in the N.F.L.,” The Times writes, “researchers also examined brains from the Canadian Football League, semi-professional players, college players and high school players. Of the 202 brains studied, 87 percent were found to have C.T.E. The study found that the high school players had mild cases, while college and professional players showed more severe effects. But even those with mild cases exhibited cognitive, mood and behavioral symptoms.
“There is still a lot to learn about C.T.E. Who gets it, who doesn’t, and why? Can anything be done to stop the degeneration once it begins? How many blows to the head, and at what levels, must occur for C.T.E. to take hold?
McKee’s concludes, “It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football — there is a problem.”
Currently, there is no technology – helmet or other safety gear – that is able to slow down or stop one player crashing into another and suffer the potential of long-term damage to the brain.
As long as the football industry continues to generate billions of dollars, it is unlikely the N.F.L. will do anything, because the only sure way to prevent C.T.E. in players is to abolish football.