When 59-year-old Tony Dorsett, running back of the Denver Broncos, retired in 1988, it signaled the end of a hall of fame career. In his 12 seasons in the National Football League, 11 of them with the Dallas Cowboys, Dorsett cemented his name in the record books. He is eighth all time with 12,739 rushing yards, holds the record for the longest run from scrimmage (99 yards), and helped Dallas win Super Bowl XII. He put his all into every game as he exposed his body to hit after hit every week. Unbeknownst, perhaps, to Dorsett at the time, those hits would have a lasting impact. Now long retired from the NFL, Dorsett experiences drastic mood swings, memory loss, suicidal thoughts and depression. He finds controlling his emotions difficult and lashes out at his friends and family.
The Hall-of-Famer is just one of many former players suffering mentally and emotionally. Dorsett, along with three other ex-players traveled to California to undergo various medical tests. Among them were brain scans, which revealed signs of CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Currently, doctors can only confirm the disease by examining the brain after a player has died. CTE is diagnosed by observation of the presence of abnormal levels of the protein tau in the brain. The condition is caused by repeated blows to the head. Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, frequent mood swings, impulsiveness and depression. It is linked to dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease. There is no known cure; researchers continue to experiment with treatments. Deceased NFL players Junior Seau and Mike Webster were found to have CTE. Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, while Webster died after having a heart attack.
Dorsett’s diagnosis draws attention to the dangers of the NFL and the league’s concussion battle. The NFL has repeatedly denied the connection between head injuries in football and brain damage. A book published in October, “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, focuses on this issue. The authors chronicle the experiences of former players, including Steelers running back Merril Hoge. He suffered from severe head trauma as a result of several concussions he sustained. Hoge’s cognitive functions were severely impaired, leading to his retirement at the age of 29. Another former player who is focused on in the book is Webster, who was the center for Steelers. Like Hoge, Webster suffered severe head trauma, which affected his complete personality. After his retirement he was always angry and suffered from memory loss and depression. He encountered major financial difficulties later in life and lived in his car. The authors of the book state that the team’s medical records reveal that Webster had experienced two head injuries. The main difference between Webster and Hoge, is that the latter was advised by neurosurgeon Joe Maroon and neuropsychologist Mark Lovell to retire. Webster rushed back from his injuries, refusing to miss a single game unless he was physically unable to play.
The “League of Denial” also reveals that the league used a medical journal to print articles “Portraying NFL players as superhuman and impervious to brain damage.” Obviously, we know this is not the case, as scholars ridiculed the journal. Finally in 2009 the NFL wised up, acknowledging that there is a connection between head injuries from playing football and lasting brain damage. The league settled a lawsuit, agreeing to pay former players and their families, including Dorsett, $765 million.
The game of football is much safer now compared to when Dorsett was playing in the 1980s. Now athletes who sustain concussions must undergo mandatory testing and receive clearance from independent doctors. NFL policy requires that athletes be symptom-free before they can return to practice. Also, officials penalize any player who appears to intentionally hit the head of an opposing player. He may be fined or suspended depending upon his history and the severity of the hit. Despite all the preventive measures, players still expose themselves to vicious hits weekly. As a result, they may still face the same difficulties as Dorsett and so many other former players. It is unfortunate, but what do you expect from a game where players are hit viciously every week?