Friday, September 19, 2014

The NFL, Violence, and the looming specter of CTE

Roger Goodell just concluded a press conference earlier today in which he said that committees will be formed, outreach will be undertaken, and Women's groups worked with.

One thing he did NOT talk about, nor was asked. The link between violent off-field behavior and CTE

When Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and mother of his child, and then turned a gun on himself in the Kansas City Chiefs facility parking lot one morning it unnerved everyone. It was so ... random. So uncomfortable. So horrible beyond imagination. It was an act that went far beyond anything anyone had seen in NFL history. Yet, after a couple weeks ... outside of Kansas City it became a forgotten moment. Buried under the cavalcade of another boisterous NFL season. This was December of 2012.

A year later, the family had Belcher exhumed to perform an autopsy on his brain to see if the deceased linebacker, indeed, had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE for short). The tests have not been made public (the family of Belcher also filed a lawsuit against the Chiefs which apparently is ongoing).

There's no excuse for what Belcher did. It was horrible, and for anyone to do that to another human being ... let alone someone you fathered a child with not more than three months before is unforgivable. However, it does make one wonder...

With the cavalcade of domestic/child abuse incidents piling up (publicly) in recent months, it is worth revisiting the documentary and book League of Denial. In that book, it lays out the symptoms of CTE, and very specifically it says that "uncontrollable anger and depression" are among the most prominent symptoms of repeated trauma to the brain which leads to CTE. Here is a breakdown of symptoms.

Uncontrollable anger and depression

There is something that rings true in the symptoms there. Particularly when you take into consideration that three of the recent domestic/child abuse cases have been centered around running backs (Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Jonathan Dwyer), one of the positions in the NFL where you take the most punishment and collisions. Does it make sense that these men are suffering from rage induced from brain trauma? I would be lying if I said I knew.

Part of me believes that this couldn't be a mere coincidence. Part of me want's to tell you definitively that this is the absolute answer to the cycle of off-the-field violence we have been seeing. Yet, if I'm honest and if I think if every NFL-skeptic such as myself is ... we can't prove that CTE is a definitive cause of the random acts of violence in the NFL these days. The only way to diagnose CTE is through an autopsy and until modern medicine catches up there will always be inferences, not absolute proof.

Commissioner Roger Goodell went before reporters on Friday, September 19th to talk about everything he planned to do to address the crisis. He admitted some fault, and announced an outreach program with various Women's Advocacy groups around the U.S. ... yet he came across as unconvincing, and a bit milquetoast when reports asked him tough questions about if he would resign and his role in the Ray Rice saga. At several points he tartly said "as I said in my statement". Or some affectation therin.

More than that though, not one reporter asked a question about CTE and it's potential linkage to off-the-field violence and crime. Not one. This is where we fail as fans and media. If there is one thing that scares the NFL more than anything else it's a potential linkage between repeated trauma to the brain and the domestic/child abuse incidents we have seen lately. Quite frankly that scenario would cripple the league. Someone, anyone, should be asking if the NFL sees a linkage and if they have even explored the possibility that, yes, there may be some cause and effect.

The sad truth is we don't know because we don't want to know.

That old expression that "you like the hamburger but you don't want to know how it is made" is in full affect with anything NFL related. There are those who have call the NFL a meat market, and it truly is. The greater public has a hard time relating all the chaos of NFL life and it's risks with anything in their own. You look on the TV screen and you see someone who entertains you, but isn't identifiably "human". Opening up Pandora's Box on concussions, CTE, and all associated malady's would result in us very much knowing how that damn hamburger is made. We don't want to know ... we just want them to entertain us. We don't want them to interfere with our favorite sport. It's best that we just turn our heads and cheer them on.

I'm still struggling. I complain about the NFL frequently as most of you have heard on the CSG podcast. Ross Martin has rightly pointed out that I have a bit of "little brother" syndrome because of my coverage of the Denver Nuggets. This is absolutely, undeniably true on some level. However, the more I learn about how that hamburger is made in the NFL, the more I'm choosing to be a vegetarian. I'm having a much harder time reconciling my continued and fervid watching of the NFL every week with it's very real and very oppressive faults.

That's my own cross to bear. Shame on us for not asking the tough questions of the Commissioner and the NFL in general. There is something going on that we can all see, but just don't want to know about. There will come a time in the near future I'm afraid, where it will no longer be possible to brush our nagging feelings under the rug for the sake of the sport. When that will be, I do no know.

Yes, I'm a hypocrite. This much is obvious. I'm wondering, however, how many other people feel the same way? How many others sit back and ignore the obvious for the sake of the game? I'm willing to wager that number is fairly damn high.

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