By Anthony Scioli, Ph.D.
“Just look at the gladiators… and consider the blows they endure! Consider how they who have been well-disciplined prefer to accept a blow than ignominiously avoid it! How often it is made clear that they consider nothing other than the satisfaction of their [coach] or the [fans]! Even when they are covered with wounds they send a messenger to their [coach] to inquire his will. If they have given satisfaction to their [coach], they are pleased to fall. What even mediocre gladiator ever groans; ever alters the expression on his face? Which one of them acts shamefully, either standing or falling? And which of them, even when he does succumb, ever contracts his neck when ordered to receive the blow?”
The above passage, with the exception of two minor word substitutions on my part, was written by Cicero 2,000 years ago. My point is that his description of the sacrificial gladiator of the ancient amphitheater can be applied all too easily to the players who currently do battle on the modern gridiron.
I am convinced that football, in its present form, cannot last. I will put aside the physical carnage that piles up every weekend, the torn cartilage, broken bones, blackened, bruised and ripped skin, the shredded muscle fibers; I am not a physician. However, I am a psychologist. From my perspective, I believe that the greatest health crisis precipitated by football involves the brain and the mind, especially for those at the professional level, and particularly for those who are retired, and have suffered one too many concussions. For these former gladiators, there is a great risk of succumbing to severe, life-threatening forms of hopelessness.
The hopelessness that descends upon the retired professional football player should not be a surprise. It is understandable if you begin with some knowledge of what changes occur in a soft and mushy brain that has been repeatedly concussed, or more bluntly, tossed and smashed from side to side within a bony skull-box. Repetitive brain trauma can result in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)
CTE has been detected in the brains of ex-football players well as former boxers. In CTE, there are signs of a spreading tau protein that normally serves a stabilizing function but becomes dislodged, primarily from the axons which transmit nerve impulses. The floating Tau form a spreading tangle of tissue that disrupts brain function. Rare diseases can precipitate this pathological cascade but so can repetitive head trauma. CTE has also been found in the aged, and those stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. The most commonly affected areas include the frontal lobes (decision-making, planning, willpower), the temporal lobes (memory and speech), and the parietal area (sensory integration, reading and writing). The most common emotional symptoms in those suffering from CTE include depression, anger, hyper-aggressiveness, irritability, diminished insight and poor judgment.
On 2 May 2012 former football star Junior Seau shot himself in the chest with a .357 magnum. Eighteen months earlier, Seau had driven his SUV off a cliff following an arrest on charges of domestic violence. He claimed that he had fallen asleep. Back then, many in his circle of friends and family hoped and prayed it was the truth. His brain was sent to a team of researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine. Their tests revealed a brain besieged by CTE.
A little more than a year earlier, in February, 2011, Dave Duerson, also a former professional football player, similarly committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He had texted a message to his family indicating that he was “saving” his brain for research. Three months later BU School of Medicine confirmed “neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions.” In high school, Duerson had been a member of the National Honor Society and played the sousaphone, traveling Europe with the Musical Ambassadors All-American Band. He attended the University of Notre Dame on both football and baseball scholarships. He graduated with honors, receiving a BA in Economics. Duerson played eleven seasons in the NFL.
Whenever interviewed, the researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine are reluctant to affirm a cause and effect link between CTE and suicide. They provide the typical (and not unreasonable) response that multiple causes often underlie human behavior, including suicide. While generally true, a case such as that of Duerson seems to beg the question, what else besides CTE could have led a formerly intelligent, well-organized, responsible, and successful individual to morph into a desperate failure that ends his own life at the age of fifty?
Anthony Scioli is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Keene State College. He is the co-author of Hope in the Age of Anxiety with Henry Biller. Dr. Scioli completed Harvard fellowships in human motivation and behavioral medicine. He co-authored the chapter on emotion for the Encyclopedia of Mental Health and currently serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Positive Psychology and the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Read his previous blog articles.