Veterans arrived at training camp Wednesday, their heads spinning with the results of the newest concussion study.
The Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday published a study of the donated brains of 202 deceased players who played football during their lives. Of them, 119 made it to the NFL or CFL. Of that 119, all but two showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease now linked more closely than ever to the most violent of games.
The Eagles were, at once, fatalistic; pragmatic; and delusional. They accept that they have chosen to play a deadly game for immense reward. Incredibly, they think they will get out before it’s too late. The disease can be diagnosed only after death. No study ever has indicated that players can sense the onset of CTE, including this latest one, the largest ever done.
“I heard about it, but, honestly, did not read it. I never saw the movie, Concussion, either,”said tight end Zach Ertz, who suffered a concussion in 2015. “I’m not going out there thinking about the repercussions. I know a lot of former NFL players who have a great life right now. I think there are extremes. A lot of unknowns.”
He’s right, of course, but what we do know, more assuredly than ever, is that the longer you play football the more likely you are to have brain damage.
“CTE’s inevitable. I probably already have it,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins, who played through a concussion in 2015. “I’m sure it accumulates. It’s scary because there’s new information. It’s easy to get freaked out about it.”
Having played eight seasons, he should be freaked. The new study paints the NFL in an ever more damning light. For years owners dismissed research that revealed players’ health was endangered by their policies and ignorances. Pressured by Congress and the press, the league eventually addressed the problem — an unavoidable problem inherent to the game, but a problem that can be mitigated with proper protocols and protections.
Rule changes limit some high-speed, high-impact collisions. Also, Ertz confirmed that the Eagles are one of reportedly 12 teams that will use a new, high-tech helmet made by Seattle start-up Vicis, helmets designed to absorb impact and reduce head trauma. Things are slowly changing.
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich, an NFL quarterback for 13 years, on Wednesday presented a succinct distillation of the current league perspective.
“I think all players, even in the old days, we understand there are risks to playing in the business. There are risks to working in a mill. There are risks working as a policeman,” Reich said. “But I think most of the players have an understanding of that, and embrace it. That doesn’t mean you don’t study it and try to figure out what you can do to help, and what the effects are, so you can make a good, educated decision. But we love this game, man. It’s physical. Let’s compete, let’s go. Let’s have some fun.”
Dying young doesn’t sound like fun.
The median age of death of participants with Stage I or Stage II CTE was 44 years.
Researchers admitted that the study is skewed to present alarming results since it mainly included players whose behavior, health or both made them more likely to have CTE.
“That study is biased, but even if it’s biased, there’s something to it,” said receiver Torrey Smith, who was knocked cold in a game in December, after which the 49ers placed him on injured reserve. “Whether it’s 100 out of 100 or 10 out of 100, you need to know.”
We know that CTE is a killer. In all, 177 of the participants, or 88 percent, showed signs of CTE. Almost half of those with CTE (46 percent) either committed suicide or died of neurodegenerative diseases.
Many players believe the die is cast.
“You look at this locker room, and that study means that everybody in this locker room (will) have CTE except maybe one of us,” Jenkins said. “I understand the cost. Once that cost gets too high, I’ll walk away.”
That’s a great plan, but there is no way to predict the cost.
“There’s a shelf life for each individual player, that I think guys are starting to adhere to and not push past that,” Jenkins insisted.
Not really. Consider Tom Brady: He just completed his 17th season, won his fifth Super Bowl, has earned nearly $200 million in salary and will be 40 in a week … and his wife, Giselle, said he suffered an undiagnosed concussion last season. Brady’s back, for $15 million more. Everyone has a price.
“Depending on how much money you’re making, what opportunities are out there for you — you’ve got families depending on the income,” Jenkins said. “It’s not just that simple, to walk away from it.”
Well, it seems simple when you look at these new numbers. Ertz and Jenkins prefer empirical evidence.
“We’ve always seen the extreme cases, where somebody’s either lost their minds, killed themselves, or had some really tough times post-career. And then there are plenty of people who’ve had normal lives and done well,” Jenkins said. “We know now you’re pretty much going to have CTE, or some traces of it.”
So might their kids. They plan to protect them.
Smith has two young sons. Ertz just got married and hopes to one day have children. Both said they would not allow their sons to hit until junior high or high school. Ertz never played until seventh grade — “I absolutely hated it” — then resumed his career as a freshman. Smith played in third grade and did not return to the game until seventh grade, “And I turned out all right.”
“I don’t think there’s a real need for tackling, the high-impact drills for these young kids when their brains are still developing at such a young age,” Ertz said.
The NFL has tried to instruct youth coaches on teaching proper technique, Smith said, but collisions are collisions: “Some of these coaches are doing some stupid things with the kids. They think it’s toughening them up.”
Smith has had two NFL concussions, but playing football wasn’t where he first got dinged. He caught an elbow under the boards in a varsity basketball game his sophomore year at South Stafford High School just north of Fredericksburg, Va.
“Happened early in the game. I never came out. Played the whole game. Had my first dunk,” Smith said, with a rueful smile.
“I don’t even remember it.”