PROVIDENCE, RI – Michael Strahan once described every NFL play as a car crash. The physical impact of 22 massive human beings colliding into one another at high speeds is perhaps as violent as any other moment in team sports, provided one doesn’t crack open the history books and go all the way back to the Coliseum. But if your average NFL play is a car crash, then Bears’ linebacker Danny Trevathan’s hit on Green Bay Packer’s wide receiver Davante Adams during Thursday Night Football was more akin to an atomic bomb. Catching a ball over the middle is always a treacherous proposition in football, but Trevathan’s hit took it to a new, dangerous level. After catching a pass from Packer’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the middle of the field, Adams was ‘stood up’ in what appeared to be a routine play. But what was routine became awful as Trevathan flew into the pile up and made a crushing, head first, helmet to helmet hit on the defenseless Adams. Adams immediately collapsed to the ground, and was carried out on a stretcher as millions of fans watched, horrified.
The immediate aftermath of the hit was as appropriate as it could have been after such a traumatic collision. Trevathan, who illegally led with the helmet on a clearly defenseless Adams, received the scorn of the league as well as a two game suspension worth $200,000 of his salary. Thankfully, Adams is “feeling great” according to his twitter and is already out of the hospital.
But direct consequences aside, this incident, so similar to ones we see every week in today’s NFL, raises some concerning questions that have been admittedly festering for a long time. Head to head trauma has always been a part of football, but it has arguably only recently become apparent just how destructive those collisions are to the health and safety of football players everywhere, from the NFL to NCAA to high schools and youth programs across the country.
Concussions, and their myriad side-effects, are already all too common in football. With their accompanying headaches, confusion, nausea, etc, players at every level of the game suffer the consequences of violent collisions involving the head. But even more insidious are the long term effects of frequent brain trauma.Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE for short, is a neurodegenerative disease that has been found to impact a majority of NFL players.
Symptoms of the disease, which include those of concussions as well as memory loss, social instability and impulsivity, and dementia, usually present themselves nearly a decade after frequent head trauma, or in other words after NFL players have retired. These symptoms and behaviors associated with CTE, and therefore with the game of football in general, aren’t just theoretical anymore. Rather, numerous documented cases of mental illness or outbursts among former NFL players have coincided with their posthumous diagnoses of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. For example, after Chargers and Patriots legend Junior Seau shockingly committed suicide in 2012, his brain was donated to researchers who confirmed the presence of CTE, raising the possibility that the disease, and therefore football itself, was responsible. Even more salient is the infamous case of Aaron Hernandez, the talented Patriots’ tight end who was imprisoned for life after being found guilty of committing homicide. Hernandez killed himself in prison less than six months ago, and a post-mortem autopsy revealed that Hernandez had been suffering from an advanced stage of CTE, raising the alarming question of whether or not the disease and its symptoms had perhaps influenced Hernandez to commit such a heinous crime.
The more we learn about the effects of traumatic head injuries in football, the more horrific- and prevalent- we find them to be. As medical science advances, and researchers uncover more and more cases of CTE and neurodegeneration among former football players, the NFL and its fans are going to need to ask themselves some hard questions about the game itself. In this columnist’s opinion, the trajectory that the NFL is on is simply unsustainable. More players are likely to be diagnosed in the coming years, and more horrific incidents may follow. Enrollment in youth football programs is already falling as parents come to realize potential side effects, but the game of football itself is not advancing fast enough alongside the medical knowledge. The game must change, or it is unlikely to continue in its current form.