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  • Ken Ilgunas

I don’t know if I can watch football anymore

During the Bills-Jaguars playoff game last week, two Bills players went down with head injuries. When I watched football years ago, an injury timeout was a bathroom break. Now it’s a lump in my throat.

Head injuries, and what we now know about head injuries, have changed the way I watch the game. Each time a running back gets stood up at the line, I see CTE. Each time a receiver goes up for a ball, I see CTE. Each time the ball is snapped, I see CTE.

CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is the brain disease that leads to depression, dementia, and early death among athletes who take repetitive hits to the head.

I’ve watched football since I was a little boy. I played organized football from ages 11 to 18. It taught me discipline, toughness, teamwork. I knew the primal joy of driving your shoulder into a QB’s ribs. I loved football. Part of me still loves the game.

It’s more than just the thrill of being on the field. It’s a family conversation topic—a noncontroversial go-to that serves as a common interest between my dad and me. Since I’ve moved away from Buffalo, I no longer pay attention to local news or politics, but I always keep tabs on the Bills—one of the few things that tethers me to my hometown. It’s a holiday ritual. It’s a source of diversion and high entertainment. It’s the reason I’ve given more Sunday afternoon hugs and high-fives than I can count. I don’t want to stop watching football. But I don’t know if I can anymore.

While researchers have known about CTE occurring in NFL players since 2002, it’s only these past couple of years that fans like myself have become aware of the NFL’s CTE problem. A spate of shocking CTE-related suicides have raised public awareness, most notably in 2012 when Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau shot himself in the chest, just three years after retiring. Seau had CTE, as have at least eight other former NFL players who’ve committed suicide in the past ten years.

CTE sank in for me when, a few years ago, I found out that Pro Bowl linebacker and tackling-machine Darryl Talley, was suffering from CTE-like symptoms. As a boy, I remember watching Talley hunt down running backs in his trademark Spider-Man ski suits that he’d wear under his Buffalo Bills uniform on the Bills’ early ’90s Super Bowl teams. Talley, who retired in 1996, has since suffered from depression, chronic injuries, and suicidal thoughts.

“His mental issues have accelerated a lot in the last year,” said Darryl’s wife, Janine Talley, to The Buffalo News. “I don’t know what the future holds for either one of us. I don’t know if in a few years dementia will set in. I don’t know if I’ll be able to care for him.”

Before, I used to cheer whenever there was a big hit. Now I cringe. Before, when players got concussions, I figured they’d gotten their “bell rung” and would be back the following week. Now I imagine them suffering years later from a horrible brain disease. Before, I thought I was being entertained by rich and very lucky athletes. Now I think I’m watching human beings destroy their bodies. And for what? To entertain me?

Darryl Talley — an amazing, unstoppable athlete — is now likely up against a brain disease that he’s totally defenseless against. And maybe it’s partly my fault. It was I who cheered him on to make tough tackles, to play 204 straight games at one of the most punishing positions in the game, to sacrifice his body for his team and fans. Sure, it was Talley’s decision to pursue a dangerous career path, but does he deserve all the blame for his condition? Have I not, with my money and my viewership, turned my thumb in approval? As a fan, am I not partly responsible for supporting a game that reloads onto the field one player after another whose body will be injured and sacrificed and eventually golf-carted away?

Societies have done away with gladiatorial combat, duels, and dog fighting because they’ve deemed such activities barbaric and inhumane. When does a sport cross the line and become inhumane? What is an unacceptable percentage of NFL players doomed to be diagnosed with CTE? Dr. Ann McKee, a director of neuropathology at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Bedford, Mass, says researchers have an “enormously high hit rate” for discovering CTE among deceased NFL players. The brains brought in for study have often been from players who suspected they had CTE, so the numbers are flawed but no less startling: Of the 111 brains of deceased NFL players that have been analyzed, 110 have tested positive for CTE, or 99 percent.

More alarmingly, research has shown that it’s not just the big-hit concussions that cause CTE, but the frequent “subconcussive hits.” Dr. Robert A. Stern, a co-founder of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, estimates that an NFL lineman experiences 1,000-1,500 hits over the course of a season. So on virtually every play we may be seeing CTE developing somewhere on the field. And despite new rules designed to prevent head injuries, there were 199 concussions in 2015, 77 more than the 2014 season’s total.

In 2015, promising Bills rookie Karlos Williams, a big and fast 230-pound running back, known for his downhill power running, experienced a concussion in Week 4 against the Giants. He was out for a month. For days, Williams had to sit in a dark room without light or sound.

“It’s not going to change the way I run the football,” Williams told reporters. “It hasn’t changed the way I run the football. I run the football with an attitude. And I think that’s what the coaches expect of me coming back.”

A player like Williams got to where he is because of his running style. As a fifth round pick in a cutthroat league, Williams knew he couldn’t let up. To remain in the NFL, he has to run “with attitude,” which is another way of saying that he has to continue to run without worrying about getting another concussion. Unlike the players in Talley’s era, Williams probably knows of CTE, yet it didn’t slow down him or his fellow players.

I squirmed whenever Williams got the ball. I want to just root for players to score. But now I root that they don’t get nailed in the head. With knowledge of CTE, the game no longer seems merely tough. Suddenly it feels grotesquely violent, savage, depraved.

We’ve long known that football was dangerous. But up until recently, we thought “dangerous” meant that the players might retire from the league with busted knees and sore backs. We imagined our childhood heroes leaving the game with a hard-earned limp—an inconvenience, but also a scar they’d proudly bear as payment for their years in the spotlight when they had money, fame, and glory. We imagined them coaching a high school football team, or, if they’re lucky, joshing around with fellow ex-ball players on one of those half-time analyst panels. We never imagined them broke, living with dementia, or suicidal.

More and more, I notice the injuries. It seems rare when a full possession goes by without anyone getting hurt. Between 2000 and 2014, there was an average of more than 2,000 injuries in the NFL per year. Because of all these injuries, football players find themselves battered and addicted to pain medications at the end of their careers. The NFL expects that 6,000 of its 20,000 former players will suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Head injuries are not just an NFL problem. The brains of kids between the ages of 8 and 13 are particularly susceptible to concussions, one of which makes them one and a half times more likely to experience a second. High school football players experience 11.2 concussions for 10,000 practices and games, which may be a fraction of the real number, as studies have shown that 50 percent of high school concussions and 70 percent of college concussions go unreported. In the brains of high school football players, CTE has been found in three of 14 cases. In college players, it’s 48 of 53.

Parents, though, are taking notice. According to an HBO Real Sports/Marist poll, 89 percent of fans are aware of the connection between concussions and long-term brain injury. About a third of adults polled said this information has made them less likely to allow their son to play football. This is supported by a Sports & Fitness Industry Association survey, which found that, between 2008 and 2013, kids playing football between the ages of 6 and 12 fell 29 percent.

Aside from inventing some new concussion-free super helmet, I don’t know if there’s much else the NFL can do to limit head trauma. They’ve made late hits and helmet-to-helmet hits big-yardage penalties. They’ve instituted a concussion protocol for injured players. They settled a $1 billion lawsuit with over 5,000 ex-players who have suffered and were mislead about the risks of concussions. Yet there are as many concussions as ever, not to mention the head trauma that’s a part of each play.

So, given that the danger inherent in the game will never go away, I feel it’s up to me as a fan to decide if I’m okay watching people destroy themselves every week. I don’t think I am, but I still watch.

What will it take? Another high-profile suicide? Another discovery of CTE in one of my favorite players?

Perhaps I should say goodbye, but, after so many years, it’s hard to look away.

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