Week Under Review: Being open to a new perspective on CTE
Get all of Melissa Jacobs's columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
Welcome to Week Under Review where we discuss compelling storylines from the past week, introduce new ideas, throw in some random thoughts, have surprise guests and generally try not to put you to sleep on a lazy Sunday.
Let’s begin by applauding one of our competitors…
An eye-opening lesson this week came to us courtesy of Yahoo! Sports’ Eric Adelson. In a piece titled “Football and CTE: fear overshadows facts,” Adelson recounts the tragic tale of former NHL player Todd Ewen, who committed suicide last year at the age of 49. According to his wife, Ewen, who was suffering memory loss, believed he had CTE after reading about several other hockey players being diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease.
The neuropathologist who posthumously examined Ewen’s brain said: "He was convinced [he had CTE]. He was very afraid. That might have pushed him to do what he did."
Ewen did not have CTE.
Before Adelson’s piece, the conversation about CTE and sports (and especially the NFL) was largely polarized between the jetist black or brightest white. The preponderance of media has poured mass resources into either reporting the dangers of CTE or discussing how the NFL intentionally ignored data over the years. I’ve admittedly been in this camp. On the flip side, anyone who gets a paycheck from the National Football League will repeat the same mantra about the benefits of playing football outweighing the risks. Bruce Arians and John Harbaugh were particularly enraged this week at the NFL’s owners meeting about the perceived “War on Football.”
Adelson’s story was a refreshingly nuanced look at a complicated issue from sources without embedded viewpoints. It includes doctors who introduce ideas like CTE possibly being genetic, or that the disproportionate number of athletes whose brains were donated after death to the study of CTE may contribute to the perception that athletes are at a much higher risk of getting it.
While the piece doesn’t at all change my overall feelings on the subject, it’s healthy to have a new lens to consider.
I have two young sons, ages five and almost two, who are extremely athletic, obsessed with Kirk Cousins and will absolutely not be playing football. There have simply been too many CTE cases revealed over the past two decades. Plus, when you chat with someone like former Saints offensive lineman Kyle Turley and he tells you he’s had so much brain trauma that his goal for the next 10 years is to still be alive and not hurt anyone, you can’t shake that off. Though I now wonder if any of Adelson’s reporting on the fear factor is applicable in this case and others. Doubtful, but not entirely improbable, and the point is that’s not a notion that I (and I’m guessing most of my media brethren) would have even considered a week ago.
The other point here is that Adelson’s piece—aside from its fascinating, gutsy angle—illustrates, at least in my case, how easy it is enter a bubble when it comes to societal issues and the NFL. A large part of that is likely due to Roger Goodell’s approval rating, which is about equivalent to Donald Trump’s at a mosque. When the commissioner speaks on prevalent issues, he’s cryptic and lacks compassion. And that’s being quite generous. In other words, he gives off the typical CEO vibe of secrecy veiled in corporate buzz words and it’s impossible not to deeply wonder what he’s hiding. In the case of CTE, there are also real, tragic cases that have come to light.
So there’s something comforting about banding together with like-minded people for the common cause of seeking the truth while venting about the realities we know and the premises we think we know. This is both the beauty and curse of the snowball that is social media. I have a plethora of “twitter friends” based solely on issues like CTE. We think the same way. We’re constantly giving each other virtual high fives. We all retweeted something snide last night when it was reported that Goodell will be honored with a sports health and research award.
All of that has been productive in shining a light on an issue that the NFL would prefer we ignore. But what the Adelson piece illustrates is that we all need to approach the relationship between NFL and brain injury with an open mind as the science emerges, and avoid the same mistakes that the NFL has committed in proclaiming easy answers to such a complex and important issue.
If the NFL had a real off-season, the premiere of Hard Knocks would serve as a ringing in of sorts for the new season. Luckily, as the NFL in the Goodell Era has monopolized the entire Gregorian calendar, our reliance on Hard Knocks has waned.
When the show launched in 2001 it was innovative, edgy and provided unprecedented access to the league’s most compelling teams (the Cowboys, the Ravens off their Super Bowl win, the Bengals in Chad Johnson’s “child please” heyday). Now it’s still an entertaining few weeks, certainly better than actual preseason games, but with players and coaches mic’d up throughout the regular season—not to mention the stream of consciousness that is social media—the inside look doesn’t feel revolutionary anymore. Most importantly, teams don’t want to partake anymore. If they did, Hard Knocks would be like Super Bowl cities—a rotation of desirable teams that a national fan base can’t get enough of. We’d see the Patriots, the Cowboys, and Steelers regularly. Other teams would lobby to be Hard Knocks worthy. NFL.com would have a countdown clock to the Hard Knocks reveal plastered on its website in the lead up to a sponsor-laden prime time special to announce the lucky team.
Except teams more and more want their trainings camps to be camera-free.
In fact, a splashy rumor floated this week—that the Rams drafted Michael Sam to avoid being forced into Hard Knocks—was believable simply because the reasons a team would not want to appear on the show are so obvious. (Jeff Fisher denied this allegation on Mike and Mike Thursday morning.)
The lack of recent volunteers is so jarring that the NFL had to enact a “Hard Knocks rule” that a franchise could be mandated to participate if they meet this criteria: 1) No new head coach 2) Haven’t been in the playoffs the past two years 3) Haven’t appeared on Hard Knocks in the last decade.
Which leads us to this year’s selection: the St. Louis...er, Los Angeles Rams.
Which means it'll consist of Fisher, Case Keenum vs. Nick Foles and never-ending gratuitous shots of the Hollywood sign and Sunset strip. Yawn.
Worse is that Fisher also said on Mike and Mike that the Rams will have the final say in what appears on the show, essentially admitting that we’re not exactly getting the unfettered access that’s been promised.
It’s the NFL. I’ll watch. You’ll watch. But Hard Knocks is far from the transformational vehicle it was in the aughts. Like its “reality” show cousin, American Idol, I'll feel no real sense of loss if it goes away.
The NFL announced this week that it intends to play a regular season game in China in 2018, most likely involving the Rams (who are really getting a lot of ink in this column). While the business opportunities are attractive, I’d bet the NFL pulls back on this plan and transitions it to a preseason game.
L.A. to Beijing is a 12:50 flight, not to mention a 15-hour time difference. Plus, it’s already 2016 and there’s not even a preseason game on the docket, which you need in order to start troubleshooting the logistics. And there will be so many logistical issues here. There’s also a language barrier that has obviously not been an issue for games in London.
Most importantly, good luck finding a player who will put on a happy face at the prospect of this trip…during the regular season, that is.
Party of Five
Happy Easter to those who celebrate. As a Jew, Easter for me symbolizes two things: fancy $100 brunch buffets that are worth every penny (hey, I live in New York) and shockingly disappointing candy. Of the holidays synonymous with at least one type of candy, is Easter the worst of the bunch? Let’s delve into our scientific ranking:
1. Valentine’s Day: From conversation hearts to candy boxes, it’s all about communication, love and unpredictability. Why can’t non-candy relationships be this perfect?
2. Halloween – This would be #1 if not for that cranky old man down the block who gives out raisins.
3. Christmas – Peppermint Bark is like Sam Bradford. It looks like it has so much potential, but it's never able to live up to it.
4. Easter – The Cadbury Egg is a great idea until you fail trying to calibrate the gooeyness inside. Meanwhile, Peeps are the world’s creepiest candy. They look like they should be eating you, not vice-versa.
5. Hanukkah – Like the holiday’s origin, gelt almost always tastes like it’s been sitting around for 21 centuries.
Here was Chip Kelly at this week’s NFL owners meetings, analogizing the new rule calling for players to be automatically ejected after two unsportsmanlike penalties:
“Ever see A Few Good Men? Why the two orders? Right?...If you already have the ability to throw them out of the game, why do we have to put a second order in to throw them out [of] the game? Throw them out of the game. If they’re not playing it the right way and you have ability to eject them, why do we ...
“There is already a mechanism. Private Santiago. Don’t touch him. Why the two orders? Right, you tell me. Maybe they ordered a code red we didn’t know about, we have to investigate. It is important to know. And I don’t think anybody’s ordering a code red in the National Football League.”
Newsflash: Kelly is not boring.