The story of a football game doesn’t end with a mark in the win/lose column.
The story ends 30 years later, when a victorious receiver’s life takes a hypothetical turn for the worse.
After a successful football career and numerous concussions, this player develops early-onset Alzheimer’s and forgets his wife’s name — or he becomes depressed and maybe even suicidal.
This receiver is a hypothetical example, but there are numerous real-life cases of former NFL players whose lives have been irreversibly altered as a result of concussions induced by football injuries.
Andre “Dirty” Waters, a defensive back who played for 12 years in the NFL, was renowned for his hard hits. He retired in 1995 and dropped off the grid until 2006, when he shot himself in the head.
On the HBO show Real Sports, a doctor, Bennet Omalu, analyzed Waters’ brain. Omalu said that Waters’ brain was like one of an 85-year-old man and exhibited symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. He died when he was 44 years old.
Omalu also examined the brains of two former Pittsburgh Steelers players, Terry Long and Mike Webster. Both Long and Webster died young, had severe emotional problems and were found to have much older brains, like that of Waters.
Dr. Robert Cantu, a sports concussions expert, found that former NFL players who had at least three concussions were three times more likely to be clinically depressed and five times more likely to have pre-Alzheimer’s.
In the face of such findings, it is easy to assign blame to NFL players — surely they must know the risks they take by playing football. But no warning is given to NFL players before joining the league. More importantly, the NFL still maintains that there is no evidence linking concussions and long-term health problems.
Publicly acknowledging this link and advising players about it is necessary — and not just in the NFL.
According to a study published last year in Neurosurgery, high school football players who suffered two or more concussions reported health problems, including headaches, dizziness and sleeping issues, at much higher rates.
The warning signs are there. But the NFL is reluctant to acknowledge what is now a problem — one that might soon balloon into an epidemic.
The NFL isn’t the only one. We, the fans, still cheer our football team on. We root for the big hits and not the cart-offs. We cheer for the sacks, but not when a player can’t get up. At the end of the day, what matters most to fans is whether their team wins or loses.
The story of a football game doesn’t end at the close of the fourth quarter. College students — fans and players alike — should keep that in mind. College administrations should also make sure that each season, their teams are informed about how the stories of the Andre Waters and Terry Longs of the football world ended.
The American public can no longer be slow to acknowledge a fatal flaw in its most beloved game.
Tim Clayton is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column “HypocriSC” runs every other Tuesday.