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Ethan Sturm | Rules of the Game

The concussion era

Published: Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 01:12

 

In one of the most tragic pieces of sports news this weekend, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher committed suicide in the team parking lot after murdering his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, earlier in the morning. Belcher shot himself in the presence of head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli, who did all they could to prevent him from pulling the trigger.

By all accounts, the last-ditch effort was the culmination of a lengthy attempt by the franchise to support its troubled linebacker. The team knew that Belcher and Perkins were having relationship issues and had been providing the couple counseling for some time. Belcher reportedly thanked both Crennel and Piolo for all they had done before pulling the trigger.

Sadly, it’s quite possible that Belcher’s fate was long ago sealed not by his support off the field but by his play on it. Belcher is the sixth NFL player or ex-player to commit suicide since 2011, joining Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, Junior Seau, Kurt Crain and OJ Murdock. 

The central thread connecting these suicides is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease brought on by concussions and other brain traumas. Depression is a common symptom of the disease, and researchers at Boston University found CTE in the brains of 12 of 13 brains they studied in recent years, including Duerson and Easterling.

Reports from the team insist that Belcher didn’t have a “long history of concussions,” but it doesn’t always take major head traumas to bring on CTE. Sources close to Belcher have reported that he had shown some symptoms of the disease, including acting strangely and suffering from short-term memory loss after the team’s Nov. 18 game.

So where does that leave us as a nation and a fan base? Well, it’s hard to imagine that the multi-billion dollar industry is going anywhere anytime soon, and when we aren’t forced to watch players degenerate off the field, it’s easy to watch them kill each other on it. Would I ever let my son play the sport? Not in a million years. Would I understand if the league was someday shut down? Yes. But will I stop running fantasy teams and following the Giants until that day comes? Not a chance.

But the horrors of concussions extend off of the gridiron. A 2007 study from Ohio State University showed that the rate of concussions in women’s soccer is even higher than the rate in football. As the only mainstream sport that relies heavily on playing the ball with your head, soccer has become a cause for concern all its own. Lori Chalupny, co-captain of the U.S. women’s national team in 2009, has been banned from international play by the U.S. Soccer Federation because of her history of concussions.

Are professional women’s soccer players’ minds in the type of danger that football players’ clearly are? It doesn’t appear that way, but there are also fewer studies done on the topic.

If the behemoth that is the NFL were going to fall, now would be the time. Suicides are occurring at an alarming rate, and high-profile names like Seau and high-profile incidents like the Belcher murder-suicide are forcing us as a sports community to pay attention. But regardless of what happens at the professional level, it will be up to us as a generation to determine how we raise our children in the concussion era. Unless major advances are made — advances well out of our current scope of capabilities — head traumas and sports, from hockey to soccer, will remain closely tied.

It’s up to us to decide whether such a world is one that we are comfortable with our children entering.

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Ethan Sturm is a senior who is majoring in biopsychology. He can be reached at Ethan.Sturm@tufts.edu or @esturm90.

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