Tyler Sash was a very talented football player. A star, and an all-star, during his three-year career as an University of Iowa Hawkeye, a Super Bowl ring winner in the first of his two seasons as a New York Giant, Sash died last September at age 27 – a victim, it was recently revealed, of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is directly linked to the type of repeated brain trauma that is crippling and killing an increasing number of footballers.
It doesn’t have to happen, and shouldn’t be allowed to.
And there’s an amazing simple way to stop that type of injury – which can only be diagnosed after the victim is dead – but chances are, this step won’t be taken.
Why? For the same reason fighting will always remain an inherent part of ice hockey: The fans love to see their football heroes smash so hard into each other that the collisions can be heard, and almost be felt, in the stands, and on couches across the country. And fans love to see hockey players mix it up to the point where bodies are broken and the ice is splattered with blood.
Tyler Sash played only 23 regular season and four post-season games as a Giant. By the time he was released by the Giants, for violating the NFL’s policy against using Adderol, a powerful pain medication he was taking to deal with a serious shoulder injury, he had suffered, during his football career, at least five concussions. There is no way to calculate how many he suffered overall in the 16 years he played the game. (Look at that from a different angle: The fact he played for so many years, in a lifespan of 27 years, he didn’t play for only 11 years.)
When representative from Boston University and the Concussion Legacy Foundation advised members of his family last week that CTE caused his death, they were, while still sad that they lost him so young, nevertheless relieved to know the cause of it. And, in hindsight, the cause of some of the many symptoms he’d manifested in recent years: Memory loss, minor temper issues and bouts of confusion, they told The New York Times.
That same report said that at the time of his death, his mother, Barnetta Sash, told police her son had seemed disoriented, wasn’t sleeping well and had been dealing with allergies. Bouts of disorientation and other symptoms of CTE had been noticed for several years by friends and colleagues.
At the time of his death, Sash was taking – and improperly mixing – two strong pain medications to deal with a shoulder injury and others. The Iowa State Medical Examiner’s office said those drugs were the direct cause of his death, and his history of painful injuries was a contributing factor. But overall, the CTE appears to have been the major contributor in that it interfered with his reasoning and factored into his inability to appropriately monitor his meds.
A 2013 Frontline report compared concussion risks and rates between high school footballers and NFL players. That report showed high schoolers are far more likely to suffer concussions than are the pros, in part because of their inexperience and in part of teens’ ‘nothing can happen to me’ mindset.
Frontline was reporting on a study conducted by the Institute of Medicine and funded by the NFL. It was said to have found that in most cases, concussions symptoms disappear within two weeks. But, they noted, “In 10 to 20 percent of individuals … concussive symptoms persist for a number of weeks, months, or even years.” Right through to unusually early deaths, they could have added.
“With Tyler being so young, it’s very surprising to me,” said linebacker A.J. Edds, who played at Iowa with Sash in 2008 and 2009, to The (Des Moines) Register. “But when you start looking back and connecting the dots, some of the symptoms and signs were there.
“It’s eye-opening. It tells you about the state and the standing of what football is continuing to do to guys, not just physically but mentally as well.”
CTE is measured on a four-point scale. Sash was said to have been at level two – comparable to that of former NFL hall-of-famer Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012 at age 43.
He was far from alone as a fatal victim of CTE: Wikipedia cites some 21 NFL players (including Seau and Sash) who were diagnosed, post mortem, as CTE victims. Another eight players are suspected of having the affliction. And that’s just NFL players.
Last December, Time magazine quoted Bennet Omalu, a Nigeria-born neuropathologist, as saying that, “In my opinion, taking professional football players as a cohort, I think over 90% of American football players suffer from this disease. Over 90% of players who play to the professional level have some degree of this disease. I have not examined any brain of a retired football player that came back negative.”
Dr. Omalu first discovered CTE in an NFL player when he saw the debilitating disease in the brain of Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who died in 2002. This finding sparked a chain of events that ultimately forced the NFL to settle a class-action lawsuit from retired players and raised unprecedented awareness of the dangers of football head trauma, Time said.
A separate Time report provided a more in-depth look at CPE. Watch the video.
Reversing that, so 90% of NFL players are not likely to be suffering from CTE, could be easily accomplished, but it would require a mind re-set on the part of fans and players that, in all likelihood, is unlikely to occur.
What to do? Simple: Take away footballers’ helmets!
Soccer and rugby players are bare-headed, and they don’t have anything like the concussion issue footballers do. They — ‘the big they’ — might also want to consider scaling back the uniforms, not so far that footballers are, like soccer players, wearing shorts (which wouldn’t work at all in our climate!), but something with a lot less padding, reducing the temptations to smash into each other the way they do now.
Soccer is the world’s most popular spectator sport. It attracts millions more fans than American football could ever dream of drawing to its relatively small number of stadiums.
With today’s technology, it is possible to stream ads on TV screens – and even on stadium scoreboards or wherever – so that sport could be as incredibly profitably as American football is.
Without a helmet, or a bit of padding, in sight.
The fact that children – from before high school age – are encouraged to play a game that could, if a surprisingly short number of years, result in their death, is unconscionable. The fact that adults are encouraged, by outrageous payments running to millions of dollars per contract, to put their lives at risk from CTE is equally unconscionable.
Boxing is about as bad: Muhammad Ali, who I had the pleasure of spending two-plus on-on-one hours with 12 days before he became world champion, is a victim of Parkinson’s disease, another brain affliction that can be caused by repetitive head bangs, which Ali absorbed a lot of.
It was about the time he got into the professional boxing ‘game’, in the early 1960’s, that scientists were pinning down brain chemical causes of Parkinson’s. Much has been learned about Parkinson’s in the interval, including the fact that welders are, because of gases they are exposed to, at much higher risk of developing Parkinson’s than are, say, farmers, carpenters, or bookkeepers.
America needs farmers, carpenters and bookkeepers. It does NOT professional boxers. It does NOT need heavily-suited high school and professional footballers.
America does not need, nor should it permit, the ongoing physical damage to players, the emotional damage to families, and the enormous (often futile) cost to the healthcare system that easily avoidable football injuries cause.
Flag down! Foul on the play!