What's wrong with football? It's written in the pain on Greg Hadley's face. The senior from Colgate University, a two-time all-conference linebacker on the school's football team, is sitting in a Bedford, Mass., laboratory, staring at shattered brains of dead football players. On this Friday afternoon, Hadley has come to visit Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University neurological researcher who has received a dozen brains donated from former NFL, college and high school players. In each one, it's simple to spot a protein called tau, which defines a debilitating disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Common symptoms of CTE include sudden memory loss, paranoia and depression during middle age. The disease is also known as dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunk syndrome, because until recently the overwhelming majority of its victims were boxers. Not anymore. Researchers like McKee have found a deep and disturbing association between CTE and America's most popular sport.
Hadley wants to see, in raw, microscopic detail, what could await him. All CTE victims have had some kind of head trauma, and Hadley has received four concussion diagnoses during his college days. As they examine images under a microscope, McKee tells Hadley that the brown splotches represent the dreaded tau buildup in the brain. The brains are as brown as the pigskin itself.
Hadley lets out a quiet "Jesus" and sinks in his chair. His girlfriend stares at him, looking as if her cat just died. "I had no idea it was all over the place like that," Hadley says. He glances at a picture of a normal brain next to the stained brain of a deceased player. "You look at something like that and think, This is your brain, and this is your brain on football."
On Feb. 7, some 90 million people will watch the Indianapolis Colts play the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami. Perhaps the Roman numerals are appropriate. Although football hasn't quite reached the bloodlust status achieved at the ancient Coliseum, the path to Super Bowl XLIV is strewn with the broken bodies and damaged brains that result when highly motivated, superbly conditioned athletes collide violently in pursuit of glory. The more we learn about the human cost of this quintessentially American sport, the more questions are being raised regarding the people who run it and play it. More than 3 million kids play football at the youth level, and an additional 1.2 million suit up for their high school teams. So football's safety issues reverberate far beyond the NFL. From within the NFL, and without, a consensus is emerging that reforms are needed to keep football from becoming too dangerous for its own good.
Baseball is America's pastime, but football is its true passion. The Friday-night lights bond towns across the heartland; on Saturdays, fans forget their worries to worship at the altar of the campus tailgate, smoke rising above grills like incense. On Sundays, we park our posteriors on the sofa to cheer the sublime spirals, miraculous catches and riveting runs down the sideline. It is one of our most lucrative forms of mass entertainment, celebrated not just on ESPN but in prime-time soap operas (Friday Night Lights) and Hollywood blockbusters (The Blind Side). The NFL's players and owners and the myriad industries associated with the game fanzines, websites, merchandisers, fantasy leagues have all been beneficiaries of the tens of billions of dollars the sport generates. But it is irrefutable that those profits have come at the expense of the long-term mental health of those who play football. And perhaps more important, the young people emulating the actions of their NFL heroes are putting their futures on the line as well. "We need to do something now, this minute," says McKee, the brain researcher. "Too many kids are at risk."
Football has been a rough sport since the leather-helmet days, but today's version raises the violence to an art form. No other contact sport gives rise to as many serious brain injuries as football does. High school football players alone suffer 43,000 to 67,000 concussions per year, though the true incidence is likely much higher, as more than 50% of concussed athletes are suspected of failing to report their symptoms.
The human brain, although encased by a heavy-duty cranium, isn't designed for football. Helmets do a nice job of protecting the exterior of the head and preventing deadly skull fractures. But concussions occur within the cranium, when the brain bangs against the skull. When helmets clash, the head decelerates instantly, yet the brain can lurch forward, like a driver who jams the brakes on. The bruising and stretching of tissue can result in something as minimal as "seeing stars" and a momentary separation from consciousness.
Repeated blows to the head, which are routine in football, can have lifelong repercussions. A study commissioned by the NFL found that expro players over age 50 were five times as likely as the national population to receive a memory-related-disease diagnosis. Players 30 to 49 were 19 times as likely to be debilitated. Of the dozen brains of CTE victims McKee has examined, 10 were from either linemen or linebackers; some scientists now fear that the thousands of lower-impact, or "subconcussive," blows these players receive, even if they don't result in documented concussions, can be just as damaging as if not more so than the dramatic head injuries that tend to receive more attention and intensive treatment.
Follow Sean Gregory on Twitter @seanmgregory.