September 13, 2010
We interrupt your regularly scheduled weekend recapping for yet another reminder, this time via the New York Times, that no one should ever play football, ever:
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A brain autopsy of a University of Pennsylvania football player who killed himself in April has revealed the same trauma-induced disease found in more than 20 deceased National Football League players, raising questions of how young football players may be at risk for the disease.
Owen Thomas, a popular 6-foot-2, 240-pound lineman for Penn with no previous history of depression, hanged himself in his off-campus apartment after what friends and family have described as a sudden and uncharacteristic emotional collapse. Doctors at Boston University subsequently examined Thomas's brain tissue and discovered early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease linked to depression and impulse control primarily among N.F.L. players, two of whom also committed suicide in the last 10 years.
Doctors within the Boston University group and outside it cautioned that Thomas’s suicide should not be attributed solely or even primarily to the damage in his brain, given the prevalence of suicide among college students in general. But they said that a 21-year-old’s having developed the disease so early raised the possibility that it played a role in his death, and provided arresting new evidence that the brain damage found in N.F.L. veterans can afflict younger players.
Anyone who read Malcolm Gladwell's harrowing New Yorker piece on football concussions and resulting brain damage last year will recognize CTE as the killer disease (similar in effect to Alzheimer's) that eventually drives victims of head trauma to dementia as they age. What's particularly frightening in this case is not only Thomas' age, but the fact that he had never been diagnosed with a concussion, meaning the condition was the result of either a) Unreported concussions that he played through, or b) "Sub-concussive" collisions that took a cumulative toll on his still-developing brain over the years. Either way, this was apparently not a guy with any outward sign of having taken one shot too many.
Of course I'm exaggerating about never playing the game; the suicide rate probably doesn't even rise to the level of statistical significance compared to the general population. As the potential stakes for concussions continue to rise, though, the endless hearings, panels and rule changes seem more like necessary intrusions on the inherent violence we know and love. The more we learn, though, the more it seems like a very slightly increased risk of eventually going insane – or of being paralyzed, or suffering heat stroke, or being stricken with chronic pain for the rest of your life – is a cross that all players (and especially linemen) just have to willing to bear.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.