On the eve of Super Bowl 50, former Oakland Raiders quarterback Kenny “the Snake” Stabler was elected posthumously to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Stabler, who died of colon cancer last year at age 69, had already become part of the National Football League’s growing legion of former players diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
During a time of record profits and popularity, the NFL is still staggered by a concussion crisis that shows no signs of subsiding anytime soon. The NFL reached a settlement that could provide as much as $1 billion to help former players suffering neurological maladies, but the settlement is being appealed by former players who say it doesn’t go far enough.
The 3rd U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruling on the settlement – which covers thousands of former players – is expected soon.
New evidence continues to surface that the CTE problem may just be the tip of an iceberg. A 2015 brain study by Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University researchers found about 96 percent of men who played NFL football before their deaths suffered from the degenerative brain disease.
The findings were that 87 of 91 former players tested positive for CTE.
The scope of the problem is only now coming into focus. For those of us who watched Stabler sling the ball around the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the idea that the too-cool-for-school renegade spent his final days grappling with memory loss is almost too difficult to comprehend.
With his long hair and beard, Stabler seemed to have answered an Al Davis casting call for a rebel quarterback to lead the renegade team in the 1970s. Even his nickname – the Snake – betrayed an uncanny elusiveness.
It is still unclear how many NFL players escaped the reach of the concussion crisis highlighted in the film by the same name last year. Forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, portrayed by Will Smith, reportedly made the discovery while examining the brain of Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Famer Mike Webster.
After studying the brains of Webster and other deceased former NFL players, Omalu published his findings, which initially set off waves of backlash and denial from the NFL. In the end, the league’s reluctance to acknowledge the link between violent collisions and brain damage were reminiscent of big tobacco’s refusal to acknowledge the addictive qualities of nicotine.
The league ultimately accepted the dangers of concussions.
CTE, the progressive, degenerative brain disease, has been linked to memory loss, loss of impulse control and depression in those who are afflicted, according to Boston University researchers. In addition to former football players, the disease has been found in boxers, wrestlers and other athletes who played contact sports.
One reason it is difficult to measure the full sweep of pro football’s brain damage problem is that CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously. It is unclear why some players suffer from symptoms similar to dementia while others do not. For instance, former Detroit Lions offensive lineman Lou Creekmur never missed a game during his 10-year career and had suffered no multiple concussions, but nonetheless lost his ability to speak late in life and frequently became violent.
In 2012, Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide. A study of his brain following his death found signs of CTE damage – the result, it appears, of numerous blows to his head.
Studies so far have focused on players who, like Stabler and the families of other former NFL athletes, donated their brains for study. Many sought the brain studies precisely because they harbored suspicions of CTE-related damage.
Meantime, critics question whether the league is doing enough to combat the problem. During an AFC playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, for instance, Bengal linebacker Vontaze Burfict delivered a blow to the head of Steeler receiver Antonio Brown.
Brown suffered a concussion. Burfict received a three-game suspension.
“That’s right, only three games after intentionally hitting another player in the head with enough force to cause a concussion,” said Dr. Brent Masel, national medical director of the Brain Injury Association of America. “Players like Vontaze Burfict who intentionally inflict potentially debilitating injury on other players need to be removed from the game for at least one season if not permanently.”
“The NFL can talk about its concern for player safety, but until they take real action against this type of behavior, their words are nothing more than lip service.”
For its part, the league said in a 2015 health and safety report that concussions were down 35 percent over the previous two seasons. Commissioner Roger Goodell said the game is continuing to embrace safety culture in his recent annual state of the game address.
“There is no higher priority than player safety,” Goodell said. “We will continue to look at rules and technology to protect our players.”
Following a season in which the NFL again drew criticism for its handling of potential concussions on Sundays afternoons he said the league will also usher in a new generation of helmets resulting in a joint league, Under Armor and GE challenge. Another outcome was an improvement to the subsurface of artificial turf surfaces that could cut down on head injuries, he added.
Still, with another NFL season in the books, the league’s brass must be left to wonder where the trail of concussion-related injuries will lead next.
As if to underscore the point during Super Bowl 50, the Carolina Panthers’ leading receiver at the time, Corey Brown, suffered a head injury during the third quarter and did not return after failing concussion tests.
The Panthers lost the game 24-10.