Hardly anybody dies on the field anymore. After 18 college football players were killed in the 1905 season, Teddy Roosevelt helped resuscitate a sport on a grim slog to the grave. He convened Ivy League leaders and the resulting rules changes saved lives. Saved football itself, in fact, from the suffocating disinterest in its tedious and dangerous style.
It’s a different game now, at once more graceful and more violent. Although statistics no longer include body counts, it might be even more dangerous. The speed and power that make football the de facto national pastime exact a hidden cost. But the toll is becoming more visible.
Autopsies of former football players are bringing it to light. A disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), caused by repeated brain trauma, has been associated with behavioral changes, depression, and dementia among former NFL players.
The brain tissue of 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania player Owen Thomas, who committed suicide in April, showed the early stages of the condition. Thomas was the youngest player, and the first below the professional level, with signs of CTE.
His age, combined with the pseudo-standards of a helmet industry that regulates itself, has raised concerns about the cumulative effects of years of competitive football — even for players who never snap a professional chinstrap. For those who do, the dangers are starting to carry more than anecdotal weight. Last year The New Yorker reported on a survey of more than 1,000 randomly selected NFL retirees. Among former players over 50, the study revealed that 6.1 percent had been diagnosed with a memory-related condition — five times higher than the national average. In the 30–49 age range? Nineteen times higher.
At Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, neuropathologist Ann McKee has examined brain tissue of deceased former football players and boxers. A buildup of the protein tau, one of two associated with Alzheimer’s, is common to all of them, and at high levels for their age. McKee called former Cornell and Tampa Bay player Tom McHale’s tau “ridiculously abnormal.” Another case, age 18, had the accumulation of a 50-year-old.
There are other factors. A history of steroid use or an inherited predisposition to dementia could contribute to the advanced brain deterioration McKee has identified. More samples are necessary to draw conclusions, but the early signs are ominous. “Every brain I’ve seen has this,” McKee says.
As cases emerge among younger players, the 21st-century threat to the game becomes more stark. Notre Dame physician James Moriarity told The New York Times that if CTE could be proven to develop even among amateurs, beyond the individual case of Penn’s Thomas, “it would kill the sport.” Better the sport than more players.
Hardly anybody dies on the field anymore. Now it happens years removed from its violent cause and hidden from public view. But more than a century after Roosevelt’s reforms, the game can still kill.
Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.