Super Bowl 50: The NFL vs CTE

Published 11:40 am Saturday, February 6, 2016

An estimated 189 million people are expected to watch Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, which pits the AFC’s Denver Broncos against the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers. Some will watch for the football, others the commercials. Some will tune in just for the halftime show. But no matter the reason, let us not forget the risks these athletes take by playing such a violent, combative sport.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to watch football without thinking of those former players who have died or suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other neurological problems. Just this week, as fans read stories about Peyton Manning’s last rodeo or Cam Newton’s endzone dancing, researchers at Boston University confirmed that former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler had Stage 3 CTE when he died after a lengthy battle with colon cancer in July. The day after he passed away, his brain was removed during an autopsy and examined by scientists in Massachusetts for clues as to why his mind seemed to slip in his last few years.

“He had a moderately severe disease,” Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the Boston Healthcare System and professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University. “Pretty classic. It may be surprising since he was a quarterback, but certainly the lesions were widespread, and they were quite severe, affecting many regions of the brain.”

Few quarterbacks were as good or charismatic as “The Snake,” who probably best personified what the outlaw Raiders were all about. He was named league’s most valuable player in 1974 and led the team to their first Super Bowl title just two years later. But, his long-time companion, Kim Bush, said that his older years were filled with memory loss, insomnia and disorientation, and that he had headaches so bad that he often spend entire days in silence.

It is this posthumous diagnosis continuously linked to deceased players that should get the most attention moving forward. Stabler joins more than 100 of his peers, including Pro Football Hall of Famers Junior Seau and Frank Gifford, who have suffered from CTE. Hundreds of others, such as Brett Favre and Tony Dorsett, have publicly acknowledged either having been diagnosed with CTE or having suffered symptoms such as dementia or unusual memory loss.

To ignore the impact that playing football for 20-plus years, from childhood through retirement, has on a person’s body is to be oblivious. Even after years of denial, the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell have begun to acknowledge that repeatedly slamming your head into another’s can cause brain trauma.

Of course, that’s not what we as fans will focus on this weekend.

None of us want the sport to end. I mean, what sport can combine the skills of a world-class track athlete with the brute force of a 6-foot-8-inch, 300-pound grown man and do so with the pageantry of the big game? But more must be done to protect these players, otherwise, none of us will have the opportunity to watch Super Bowl 100.

Andrew Lind is the sports editor and staff writer at The Tidewater News. He can be reached at 562-3187, or at @AndrewMLind.