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Another Gladiator Gone
July 7, 2011 1:28 PM   Subscribe

American football player John Mackey has died at 69. Mackey, who scored a 75-yard touchdown for the Baltimore Colts in their victory in 1971's Super Bowl V, suffered from dementia. His wife Sylvia petitioned the NFL to create the 88 Plan, a program that pays for health care for NFL veterans with dementia. By 2007, Mackey, then 65, could not recognize former teammate Ralph Wenzel or distinguish coffee from soup. When the 88 Plan (so-named after Mackey's jersey number) was implemented in 2006, the NFL maintained that the plan, and the 97 players who then qualified for its assistance, "doesn't imply any link between football and brain damage".

Since the 88 Plan was implemented, more than 20 former NFL players had been posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a concussion-related brain disease whose symptoms include dementia. Most recently, former NFL player Dave Duerson committed suicide at 50, in such a way as to preserve his brain for study at the Boston University center for CTE research. The CSTE is run by Chris Nowinski, a Harvard graduate and former football player and WWE wrestler. Nowinski is at such high risk for CTE that he told NPR, "I'm keenly aware that every time I overreact to something that I don't know if that's just me or I don't know if my brain is slowly falling apart." The youngest player ever diagnosed with CTE is another Ivy Leaguer, 21-year-old UPENN senior lineman Ben Owens, who also committed suicide last year. Previously. And previously.
posted by Snarl Furillo (45 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
As a football fan and sometimes wrestling fan this is a pretty huge issue for me. I don't think these activities can really fix these issues in their current form. They will end up different sports entirely.

In reality though, I'm probably just gonna stick my fingers in my ears, ignore this, and wait for training camp to start. Stupid lockout.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 1:38 PM on July 7, 2011


TSN, one of Canada's major sports networks, has been doing a series of segments on the increasing violence in sports and the consequences.
posted by never used baby shoes at 1:45 PM on July 7, 2011


I love football - but I just don't see how we can play the game the way we are playing it.

The speeds are too fast, the hits are too hard. The pads, ironically, are only making things worse. You can hit harder, so you do.

I just don't know how to solve this. I dont know if this is even solvable. But every time I see yet another retired player who's a shell of a person, my support for the game falls.
posted by eriko at 1:46 PM on July 7, 2011 [8 favorites]


Great post.

Most recently, former NFL player Dave Duerson committed suicide at 50, in such a way as to preserve his brain for study at the Boston University center for CTE research.

I almost made a post when the CSTE found that Duerson was correct in his suspicion of brain trauma. What a horrific tragedy.
posted by lalex at 1:49 PM on July 7, 2011


Yeah I don't watch pro-ball anymore, I don't even play fantasy football. It's partially because of this.

I'm still a college fan, but being an alumnus of a school is such an emotional tie that it's much harder to break the habit.

That said, if I had a son there is no way he would be allowed to play American football (hockey may be as bad, and even soccer has it's worries).
posted by oddman at 1:52 PM on July 7, 2011


I am major football fan, too. At least the players today are more acutely aware of the risks involved and can choose to play (or not) balancing those risks.

Tho I cannot understand why the NFL will not sack up and require every player to wear the most modern concussion-resistant helmets. It's not like the link between football and brain damage is a secret anymore. Pads, helmets, facemasks etc were all innovations created to make the sport safer. There is no reason to stop innovating now.

And yeah, if I had a son, there would be 0.0% chance of him ever playing football.
posted by gnutron at 1:54 PM on July 7, 2011


But every time I see yet another retired player who's a shell of a person, my support for the game falls.

So how many more of these men do you think you'll need to see before your support for these organized assaults is at an end entirely?
posted by longsleeves at 1:57 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've never been a football fan, but I feel a lot of compassion for these guys--they don't deserve to suffer just so other people can be entertained.

But is there honestly any chance that the NFL will ever face this issue...wouldn't it mean the end of the sport? Is it more likely they'll try to buy off enough legislators and fake research to "prove" it's still safe and to deny the reality of what happens to players? Will fans be unwilling to give up watching other people destroy themselves for entertainment?

Whatever happens, it's not going to be pretty.
posted by emjaybee at 1:58 PM on July 7, 2011


The problem is less the helmets, than the shoulder pads.

The large shoulder pads are designed to allow a player to deliver a blow without dislocating the shoulder. The helmet's ability to temporarily protect the head is also a problem. The player is OK, but it creates situations where one can have chronic injuries later.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:58 PM on July 7, 2011


That said, if I had a son there is no way he would be allowed to play American football (hockey may be as bad, and even soccer has it's worries).

Me too. My son isn't particularly sports-minded right now, but in future if he wants to compete he'll need to learn something that doesn't involve concussions. Which seems to rule out most team sports (isn't baseball also supposed to have a surprisingly high concussion risk?)
posted by emjaybee at 2:00 PM on July 7, 2011


As far as I know, this isn't an issue at all with rugby (union or league) players, who mostly play without pads or helmets (although soft rubbery helmet-type headgear is worn by the occasional player these days). Another data point against all those silly pads & helmets?
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:03 PM on July 7, 2011


Players do get concussion every now and then, though. But I think the whole point that your head is completely exposed means you take greater care not to smash it into things, and there are plenty of rules penalising contact with a player's head. I played rugby for six years & can't remember any significant knocks to the head - although I was a pretty mediocre player & never made it above the 4th XV.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:07 PM on July 7, 2011


The problem is less the helmets, than the shoulder pads.

Pro hockey has been trying half-assedly to do something about concussions in the last few years too, and some people (including Don Cherry) think the new harder armour on shoulders etc (as opposed to padding) has had a similar effect in that sport. I don't know about football helmets, but hockey helmets are tested and designed to protect primarily against direct impacts from the top or side of the head, and do little to protect from an impact suffered while spinning or rotating which are very common in hockey.

It's hard for me as a spectator to tell if the problem is really getting worse or is just finally getting the attention it deserves, but when some of the sport's biggest stars are missing large parts of the season with concussions in their prime it's hard to side with the "let's keep hockey a tough sport" crowd. Leagues like the NFL and NHL need to do more about this, and the NFL in particular should not be denying that there's a link between their sport, concussions, and brain damage.

For John Mackey,

.
posted by Hoopo at 2:16 PM on July 7, 2011


They added the pads and helmets because people were dying on the field.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:17 PM on July 7, 2011


As far as I know, this isn't an issue at all with rugby (union or league) players, who mostly play without pads or helmets (although soft rubbery helmet-type headgear is worn by the occasional player these days). Another data point against all those silly pads & helmets?

I wouldn't be so confident about the relative risks in rugby. They can only tell if you have CTE after you're dead, and most of the research so far has been related to American football players. I'm not aware of any studies involving rugby players at all. Any sport where people are get concussions is potentially dangerous to long term brain health. You can also do a lot of damage to the brain just with repetitive sub-concussive events. I think there's even some evidence that soccer players are causing damage to their brains just from heading the ball frequently.
posted by Copronymus at 2:18 PM on July 7, 2011


The NYT examined whether padding and helmets actually increases risk in this piece, which compared women's college lacrosse, which does not use helmets, to men's college lacrosse, which does.

I've also heard some American football fans suggest eliminating the face mask on helmets, making it harder for players to use their helmets as weapons on hits against defenseless players. The NFL cracked down on those hits a bit last season.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:22 PM on July 7, 2011


And concussions are only part of the picture. Many (most?) NFL players retire with knee, hip, and spine injuries, with many ending up as cripples, or with chronic pain and the drug abuse that tends to follow.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 2:27 PM on July 7, 2011


the NFL maintained that the plan, and the 97 players who then qualified for its assistance, "doesn't imply any link between football and brain damage".

Well, they are the experts, and if they say there is no link, then I guess it must be true. And as their continued profits depend on football being a harmless pastime, I suppose they must look at it pretty closely.

HAMBURGER
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:28 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I was a boy there were two things my mother forbid that I did not understand. Riding motorcycles and playing football. I thought she was ridiculous. She said that motorcycles were killer-cycles and that football players "got their heads beat in".

The last time I played (flag) football I was 25 years old and jumping to catch a pass and some idiot speared me in the chest, knocked the wind out of me, and they X-rayed me for broken ribs at the emergency room.

Fun!

I am pretty sure John Mackay was quite happy about it all right up to the point where the doctors told him his brain was incurably hosed. Very very very sad.

Since I am a Raiders fan I haven't been paying that much attention for a few years.
posted by bukvich at 2:31 PM on July 7, 2011


The pads and helmets should be swapped for leather. Just like in the old days.
posted by Meatafoecure at 2:33 PM on July 7, 2011


I just don't know how to solve this. I dont know if this is even solvable.

Giant bobblehead pillow helmets. Mark it, dude.
posted by fusinski at 2:47 PM on July 7, 2011


By 2007, Mackey, then 65, could not ... distinguish coffee from soup.

neither could the vending machine in my local greyhound station
posted by pyramid termite at 2:52 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


It is becoming very difficult to rationalize supporting American football. I would have no problem with my alma mater abandoning the sport entirely (except it's such a big money maker, doncha know.)
posted by mrhappy at 2:55 PM on July 7, 2011


I played rugby for six years & can't remember any significant knocks to the head

Do I have memory problems? None that I recall.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:56 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


most of the research so far has been related to American football players. I'm not aware of any studies involving rugby players at all.

Studies aside, it's common in rugby (as in other sports, I'm sure) for ex-players to maintain links with their clubs & with the sporting organisation in general - as coaches & trainers, referees, commentators, columnists, or at awards & fundraising functions & other club activities.

This would imply to me that if there was a significant level of life-impairing brain damage going on, people would have noticed, as they did with Muhammad Ali, for example.

It could well be that former rugby players are suffering from these kinds of effects; all I'm saying is that I've never heard of such a thing, and it's something you'd expect to attract attention from the press if it was happening.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:20 PM on July 7, 2011


I love American football. And I know it has to change. What I'd like to know is where the danger of head trauma is greatest -- is it the linemen, who run into each over and over again, play after play, though at relatively low speeds? Or is it the receivers, wideouts and tight ends who are often hit hard, at speed, in positions that don't allow them to protect themselves?

In any case, something has to change. The NFL has denied the problem and dragged their feet long enough. Who knows how many more men have started down the path to an early, ugly death because of the league's fear of bad PR.

Here's an idea: let 'em play flag football. I'd still watch. Really. I like seeing how the plays develop, how the runners find holes, how the receivers leap for sideline grabs. I'd get used to a no-hit version of football. But I fear I'm in the minority of NFL fans.

And goodbye, John Mackey. You were a great football player.

.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:21 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is kind of eerie timing, since I spent the better part of the day reading about MMA-related injuries -- and discussions about when guys like Wanderlei Silva should hang it up, after getting brutally starched in several fights.

I then went on to read some absolutely depressing stories about football players; many mentioned in this excellent post; other combat athletes; a litany of pro wrestlers. Once I was done reading, I actually had to taken a moment to myself.

I'm not a huge sports fan. I can name maybe 6 NFL teams, maybe twice as many NBA teams, and still confuse Minnesota Wild with North Stars. The only sport I truly follow is MMA.

I stopped watching pro wrestling back around when The Ultimate Fighter started; I won't pretend I stopped watching it due to concerns about the workers' safety, but it *was* something I thought about. I didn't really re-visit that concern until the Chris Benoit massacre in 2007. From all accounts, Benoits posthumous CTE test showed him as having the equivalent brain damage to a 90+ year old man with advanced Alzheimers. My jaw dropped.

Since then, I paid a lot closer attention to the MMA fighters I was watching, and boxers as well. It's truly a creepy feeling to watch a combat athlete age so quickly, largely due to cumulative trauma. Watch their interviews, their foot work, their overall gait, and track it; you can see signs in some, in others it's not so clear, but suddenly a guy goes from sounding like your average guy, to having an ever-so-slight slur, to finally sounding like they're basically drunk all the time. (Seriously, take a look at the HBO special they did on Meldrick Taylor; that shit will chill you.)

I cannot even imagine what it must be like for an athlete to deal with that kind of deterioration; combined with the high stress level inherent to the upper echelons of, well, anything; the stuff of nightmares.

I will forever be conflicted. I really do enjoy combat sports, and the physical aspects of those of non-combat variety, yet I also have concern for these competitors, as human beings. To a degree, they know the risks and accept them, but that does not mean we should not be taking steps to minimize those risks in the first place.

No, I do not have any ideas on how to remedy this problem. The only thing I can firmly state is that the schedules of athletes need to be taken into consideration. I think MMA is a lot more prudent in this regard; fighters compete less-than half a dozen times a year, generally, and when the victim of a KO they are typically suspended for 90 days without contact training and some times longer -- depending on whether or not there are other medical requirements to the suspension.

The UFC's Dana White should also be commended for basically forcing Chuck Liddell to retire, after being the victim of multiple brutal knockout losses; his specific reasoning was head trauma and a concern for Chuck's overall well-being. I'm sure that had a lot to do with his prior background in the boxing world; seeing a lot of broken, fucked up fighters who had their egg cracked.

How sad is it that an organization that was banned and decried as "human cock-fighting" decades ago now has health insurance for all of its fighters, performs their own drug testing when running events in jurisdictions without athletic commissions, and whose president will forcibly retire a a main event top draw because he values a man's health over PPV buys?

/end blathering
posted by Dark Messiah at 3:26 PM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


As far as I know, this isn't an issue at all with rugby (union or league) players, who mostly play without pads or helmets (although soft rubbery helmet-type headgear is worn by the occasional player these days). Another data point against all those silly pads & helmets?

This is a massive issue in rugby.
posted by kersplunk at 3:41 PM on July 7, 2011


My junior year of high school, a classmate was playing in a game and took a pretty hard direct hit to the head. Formerly a popular kid and a very good student, the injury literally left him drooling and shuffling, with the mental capacity of a six-year-old.

The next year, my Senior year, one of the art classes and one of the music classes were both cancelled for lack of funding. The football team got a new playfield.
posted by xedrik at 4:04 PM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


They added the pads and helmets because people were dying on the field.

Reference please. As for people who wouldn't let their kids play football because people who play decades at the highest level of competition wind up with brain injuries, will you let them drive/ ride in a car?
posted by yerfatma at 4:05 PM on July 7, 2011


The truly creepy thing about Mackey is that he didn't actually know; he only suspected. Currently the condition can only be diagnosed by dissecting the brain. He made his exit in such a way as to make knowing possible for his fellow athletes, but he died not knowing for sure himself.

.
posted by localroger at 4:08 PM on July 7, 2011


Despite rapidly growing popularity, college football was in serious trouble in the early twentieth century. The rules changes of the 1890s led to only a brief decrease in the rate of injury and death on the playing field. By 1905 the public outcry against the game's brutality was so great that several colleges (including Columbia, the third school to take up the sport) banned football, and others threatened to do so. Even President Theodore Roosevelt, hardly a pantywaist, demanded that reforms be made. The movement led to the creation of a body that five years later, in 1910, became known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA since has been the major power in formulating rule changes and in setting up and policing the procedures under which members operate their football programs.

Changes in both rules and player equipment brought about by the reform movement led to the immensely popular modern game.

posted by furiousxgeorge at 4:24 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


As for people who wouldn't let their kids play football because people who play decades at the highest level of competition wind up with brain injuries

Hard to say that, there are plenty of concussions at the high school level.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 4:25 PM on July 7, 2011


This is a massive issue in rugby.

Those links were all about concussion amongst current players, which is certainly a risk, but as a casual observer you could watch an entire season of rugby & maybe see only a handful of players taken from the field by trainers, giddy with concussion.

I'm not sure what it says about longer term damage, although dementia pugilistica is "caused by repeated concussive and sub-concussive blows (blows that are below the threshold of force necessary to cause concussion), or both".

But there's a difference between American footballers using their heads & helmets as weapons, repeatedly (because every play basically involves everybody on either team trying to smash into each other), as opposed the much more accidental & occasional blows to the head in rugby. Like I was saying, if there are any former rugby players out there suffering from ongoing brain damage, then that would be a well-hidden or unreported trend.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:36 PM on July 7, 2011


It's not just about concussions, either. This previous post on metafilter talks about a study that demonstrated that even the normal impacts from training can result in reduced scores on tests of visual memory. It seems plausible that this could result in permanent brain damage over a long period of time, even if you never had a concussion or any other acute traumatic brain injury.

It seems likely to be that this will eventually kill the sport - a lot of parents will stop putting their kids into the sport if there's proof that it will directly impede their learning, and as the number of people who have played or been involved with the sport goes down, the popularity will go down with it. It's a pity, because I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with the sport and it's a great one for spectators, but I really don't know how you'd fix football without changing it into something completely different.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:04 PM on July 7, 2011


Any other industry that did this to its workers would be sued out of existence.

Honestly, we might as well just go back to gladiatorial matches. It's cleaner.
posted by schmod at 5:58 PM on July 7, 2011


I don't doubt that this is an issue in rugby league/union, but I agree that it certainly doesn't feel like players end up as shattered as NFL players. I would question how much of the difference is due to padding and how much is due to rugby going properly professional only recently. Certainly until the 90s players still had to maintain jobs outside of rugby to make ends meet, it quite possibly engendered caution that is being lost.
posted by fido~depravo at 7:56 PM on July 7, 2011


It is upsetting to me that the NFL has really only taken baby steps to do anything about this. There is too much money involved in the sport and they don't want to risk losing it by changing the game too drastically. It's not just the massive head shots leading to concussions that causes this though. There is growing evidence showing that just the repeated head blows that the linemen suffer day in day out of bumping helmet to helmet is much actually worse.

If I have a boy I wouldn't want them to play football. I regret doing so.

(played for 8 years - 1 arthritic knee - 1 hip in need of replacement - other joint issues - not sure how many concussions - only in my 30's)
posted by WickedPissah at 8:15 PM on July 7, 2011


I would question how much of the difference is due to padding and how much is due to rugby going properly professional only recently. Certainly until the 90s players still had to maintain jobs outside of rugby to make ends meet

Note that Rugby League has been professional since 1895. In fact, the split into League v Union was precisely over the professional v amateur distinction, respectively.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:32 PM on July 7, 2011


(having said that, as recently as the 80s or even 90s League players typically did have jobs on the side, usually as builders' labourers & similar physical jobs, as the professional salaries still weren't all that much)
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:35 PM on July 7, 2011


One thing to understand is that football helmets were never intended to prevent concussions and traumatic brain injuries. They were intended to prevent skull fractures and other potentially lethal head injuries.

Helmets focused on preventing concussions have only emerged in the last few years, with somewhat mixed results. The NFL refuses to mandate them mainly because it would be a legal nightmare to admit that football is unsafe (even though every time a WR gets blown up by a safety it's abundantly clear it's not safe).

We have pads and helmets because people used to die by scores every year from football. Now we worry about scores of former players with traumatic brain injuries or players paralyzed on the field by helmet-leading collisions. Dumping pads and helmets might slow players down a bit, but you'll still have 350 lb linemen hitting 350 lb linemen and 200 lb QBs. The death toll would make the early 1900s look tame.

There's no easy way out for football. You can make it safer, but it's not a safe sport, and it never will be. The NFL is finally starting to do something, banning horse collar tackles, leading with the helmet, and defenseless receiver hits, but in many cases it's about protecting star players, not about keeping the rank-and-file safe.
posted by dw at 10:42 PM on July 7, 2011


This is the New Yorker article that made me aware of the concussion problem, just as my neighbor's son was trying to decide whether to pursue his football success past high school. He'd just had a serious concussion, and his dad was struggling between the all-American urge to say, "Man up!" and his (eventually dominant) concern for his son's health.

Football's an industry that chews up its participants and spits out the bones when they're done.
posted by tizzie at 5:49 AM on July 8, 2011


The Syracuse University football family remembers John Mackey from the Syracuse newspaper
posted by maurice at 8:54 AM on July 8, 2011


Someone should invent a tamperproof accelerometer that fits inside a player's helmet and counts the number of concussive blows. Football leagues would require players to wear this at every game and practice, and require teams to give players a mandatory time out if their concussion count ever gets too high.

Since there's evidence that closely spaced concussions are much worse for the brain, it should beep at players and tell them to take a break if their concussion count is rising too rapidly. Maybe it would flash a light on the helmet to indicate to the ref that the player really needs a break.

High school leagues should require teams to adopt this system, since their players aren't old enough to make a rational decision about whether to play.

Getting the NFL to adopt it would be an uphill battle, but if they did then maybe "concussion count" could just be another stat that players could track and gossip about.
posted by miyabo at 11:49 AM on July 8, 2011


and require teams to give players a mandatory time out if their concussion count ever gets too high.

One is too high without significant down time.
posted by Dark Messiah at 4:12 PM on July 8, 2011


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