Kenny "The Snake" Stabler, the Alabama boy who went on to a legendary career wearing No. 12 for the NFL's Oakland Raiders, died of colon cancer in July at the age of 69. A newly released autopsy has revealed that Stabler also suffered an advanced case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a crippling brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head.
“He had moderately severe disease,” Dr. Ann McKee, the Boston neuropathologist who examined Stabler, told the New York Times. “Pretty classic. It may be surprising since he was a quarterback, but certainly the lesions were widespread, and they were quite severe, affecting many regions of the brain.”
And how does CTE affect its victims?
"Early on, CTE sufferers may display clinical symptoms such as memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control," according to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, where McKee serves as co-director. "However, CTE eventually progresses to full-blown dementia."
I've been a football fan from boyhood, when my Pittsburgh Steelers went a dismal 1-13 in 1969 and a few years later began a historic string of dominance, winning four Super Bowls in a six-year period. Mike Webster, the stoic center on that team and a Hall of Famer, would later become famous again as the first former player diagnosed with CTE, a tragic story told in the recent Will Smith movie "Concussion."
So far, the presence of CTE can be confirmed only after death, through brain dissection. Terry Bradshaw, the star quarterback of those Steeler teams, fears what the doctors will find when his own time comes. He is suffering what appear to be symptoms of the disease, and has sought medical help.
"I couldn't focus and remember things, and I was dealing with depression," Bradshaw told USA Today a few years ago. "I was frustrated I couldn't remember stuff, and I got real upset. It was driving me nuts. I got tested to see what condition my brain is in. And it's not in real good shape."
The odds are strong that Bradshaw is correct, that his symptoms are directly related to CTE. In September, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy announced that it had found the disease in the bodies of 87 of the 91 former NFL players it had studied.
The late Frank Gifford had it. Running back Tony Dorsett, whom I watched as he single-handedly destroyed my high school football team, has it and says he had no idea "that the end was going to be like this."
Just last week, it was announced that the late Tyler Sash, a 27-year-old who had played two years in the NFL, had suffered advanced CTE. Former Falcons Shane Dronett and Ray Easterling, both of whom died of suicide, had the disease. Evidence of CTE has also been found in the bodies of men as young as 17, and in those who never played football beyond high school.
Once you know such things, you can't "unknow" it. Watching a football game has become an exercise in guilt suppression, at least for me. I still thrill at the big hit that changes the course of the contest, then cringe when one or more heavily padded players stumble to the sidelines, because now I know.
Parents now know too. Bradshaw says that he would not allow his son to play the game. Troy Aikman, the Dallas Cowboy legend, says that he would not encourage a son to play. Antwaan Randle El, a former Steelers star receiver, reports he too has symptoms of CTE, even though he is just 36, and now wishes that he had never played football and advises others to stay away.
“There’s no correcting it. There’s no helmet that’s going to correct it. There’s no teaching that’s going to correct it. It just comes down to it’s a physically violent game. Football players are in a car wreck every week.”
“Right now,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I wouldn’t be surprised if football isn’t around in 20, 25 years.”
Remarkable as it seems, I think that might prove correct. CTE is also being diagnosed among military veterans who have been exposed to repeated explosions and concussions, which is tragic in its own right. But at least in those cases, the assumption is that the damage is being done in a cause greater than our mere entertainment and the huckstering of light beer, trucks and erectile dysfunction drugs.
To reduce the risk of brain trauma in football, you have to significantly reduce violent contact in football. And if you significantly reduce violent contact, it isn't football as we have come to know it. As the scale of the problem sinks in, the pool of parents willing to let their sons play is going to shrink. Athletes with an option are going to choose longer, safer careers in other sports. It's going to get harder for fans to reconcile what they know with what they're seeing. The rules changes needed to keep the game acceptable to the mainstream and out of the courtroom are going to make it less popular. Sponsors will begin to shy from the controversy. Liability may become an issue for high schools and colleges. And despite some changes, the NFL shows little sign of shaking its tradition of treating players as disposable, replaceable parts.
They are not. Beneath the helmets, pads and uniforms, our heroes are paying too high of a price.