The Real Stakes at the Super Bowl

Exactly a year ago last Tuesday, I had a brush with death. I experienced a severe traumatic brain injury, in addition to numerous skull fractures, subarachnoid hemorrhages, subdural hemorrhages, intraventricular hemorrhages, and a Broca’s area contusion, to name my head injuries. I was on medical leave from Andover for the remainder of the 2016-17 school year.

According to Drs. Stocchetti and Zanier of the University of Milan, the average moderate to severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) survivor experiences a 12.2-year life reduction. Within the first year of injury, more than half of TBI survivors are affected by depression. Over the next six years, this demographic grows to two in three survivors. TBI can also cause the onset of epilepsy and significantly increase the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

It was a neuropsychological anomaly that I was able to return to a traditional academic setting, much less one as rigorous as Andover. I only experienced severe TBI once, and its symptoms still affect me today, as they will for the remainder of my life. The pain endured by victims of repeated traumatic brain injury, such as National Football League (NFL) players, is unimaginable.

This weekend, millions of people will watch the Super Bowl and celebrate, but it is essential to remember the sacrifices made by players to enable this celebration. The NFL is a huge economic vehicle. On a surface level, it might seem that there are only benefits to come from buying into this market, as virtually nobody loses money. However, in the financial conglomerate that is American football, there are more valuable things at stake than money, as proved by recent medical discoveries.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disease that affects the brains of people who have been victims of repeated, frequent TBIs and/or concussions (the common term for a TBI considered clinically mild). This disease can only be diagnosed posthumously, and it was first diagnosed on a professional football player in 2002. Dr. Ann McKee, Director of the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center at Boston University, is a leading authority on CTE. She examined 202 donated brains of former football players, 111 of whom played in the NFL. Of the 111 NFL players’ brains, 110 of them presented clear evidence of CTE.   

One of the most notable cases of CTE is that of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was diagnosed by McKee in an autopsy after his suicide. Hernandez’s case was “the most severe case they had ever seen in someone of Aaron’s age,” according to a lawyer representing his family. Hernandez’s family has filed a lawsuit against the NFL and the Patriots. They rightfully allege that the league and team knew that repeated, frequent TBIs lead to brain disease such as CTE, yet they did not protect Hernandez from frequent injury in the pursuit of profit. While affected players are very well-compensated financially, nothing can compensate for the pain of this type of injury, which I have learned myself as a single TBI survivor.

Like the family of Aaron Hernandez, I believe that much more can be done by the NFL to raise awareness of the risks of playing professional football. The NFL’s changing game rules and selective funding of medical research through its eponymous foundation is not enough. Players should repeatedly be made aware of the risks that they will take when they play, and this should be done years before any professional employment by organizations such as the NFL.

There remains doubt in the community, such as that of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has denied the fact that a career in professional football increases CTE risk. People like Jones profit insurmountably from the suffering incurred by players of the sport, including the early deaths of players such as Aaron Hernandez. The least they can do is be transparent and make clear to players the risks that they are taking before it is too late.

Madeline Stickley is a two-and-a-half-year Upper from Westport, Conn.