AUSTIN — On the University of Texas stage, a former Longhorns basketball star and son of an old Houston Oiler pressed a neurologist about whether science can say for sure what football did to men such as his father. Lance Blanks probably didn’t get the answer he wanted. At least he’s asking.
Which was the point of Thursday’s McGarr Symposium on Sports and Society event, “Head Trauma and the Future of Football.”
Because let’s face it, we need to talk.
Consider the testimony this week of the Patriots’ Devin McCourty in Atlanta. Asked about football’s risks, he said, “I’m not worried. I’ve only had two concussions.”
God bless him, let’s hope McCourty proves to be right. Let’s hope he doesn’t end up like Sid Blanks, a running back for the Oilers in the ’60s. Now 78 and nearing the end of a long, precipitous decline, he can’t do much for himself. He masks it as best he can, but his son sees through the disguise. Lance wasn’t as perceptive in high school, when his old man first showed signs. Sid must have known it, too, or he wouldn’t have warned his son off football.
Lance didn’t make the connection back then. Didn’t get it even as it took his father five seconds simply to raise his hand to his mouth.
“Maybe,” Lance thought then, “this is what happens to a parent at 50.”
What happened to Sid Blanks wasn’t normal, but it’s probably more common than most of us think. If we think about it at all, that is. We don’t like the stories. Like the one this week about Tommy Nobis, whose brain came back riddled with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The findings weren’t much of a surprise to his family. His daughter told a reporter they’d never known the real Tommy Nobis, one of the greatest players in Longhorns history. The man they knew was so volatile, they more or less walked on eggshells around him until his death in 2017.
Football fans don’t like to hear these stories. Stories like Rickey Dixon, the former Sooners great, which I wrote just last month. Diagnosed at 46 with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hanging on at 52.
Of course, as painful as it is, this is just anecdotal evidence. Sad stories get more attention than numbers.
Consider these: According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, high school football participation is down 6.6 percent nationwide the last decade. Over the same period, the U.S. Sports and Fitness Industry Association reports a 20 percent decline in youth football participation. And then there’s Boston University’s startling report in 2017 that researchers found CTE in 110 of 111 brains of former NFL players.
As for that last statistic, there’s a little good news. Just because nearly all of the brains in the 2017 report showed CTE doesn’t mean a commensurate percentage of football players suffer the same effects. One of Thursday’s panelists, Maya Henry, director of a UT lab that studies the brain and speech, cited “huge selection bias” in the BU study. Families donated brains of loved ones for the study because they suspected something was wrong. What we need is a more wide-ranging study to incorporate the brains of players who showed no ill effects, as well.
Not everyone who plays football will end up with CTE. Same as everyone who smokes doesn’t get cancer. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know the potential consequences.
Take Devin McCourty’s assertion that he’s fine because he’s only had two concussions. Chances are good he doesn’t know how many he’s had. For that matter, one concussion might be enough.
The neurologist on Thursday’s panel, Paul Schulz, put it in sobering terms. Playing football, he said, is like running down a field with a plate of Jell-O. Your brain is the Jell-O. A skull does only so much good.
Anyone who plays football is simply rolling the dice. Sitting between Schulz and Blanks on the podium was the football coach at Austin High. Mike Rosenthal was an All-America lineman at Notre Dame and played nine seasons in the NFL. Now 41, healthy and happy, he said he’s often considered these stories and statistics.
Would he play football again?
“I go back and forth on it,” he said. “Football took me to Notre Dame. I couldn’t have afforded to go there without it. I met my wife there, and we’ve had four kids together.
“It has opened so many doors for me, and I’m fine with it for myself.”
“But I don’t want my kids to go through it.”
Rosenthal’s introspection was refreshing from a high school football coach. Most spend too much time sequestered with peers. Like any of us, they could benefit from getting outside comfort zones and hearing something we thought we already knew but suddenly sounds new in a strange setting. At least that was Rosenthal’s experience Thursday.
Look, as your intrepid reporter has told you, I’m a football fan. Both of my sons played it in high school. If that sounds at cross purposes with what you’ve read so far, well, I’ve had misgivings, too. The point is we need to make informed decisions. Find answers. Demand them, even.
And for Lord’s sake, stop complaining about football going soft. The NFL is merely trying to save brains and stop lawsuits. Might not do much good in the long run, but it’s better than simply ignoring so much evidence.
The future of football is safe, by the way. Makes too much money to fail. Good players will risk their futures, and the game will go on. For better or worse, we’re a hard-headed bunch.
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