They who are about to die salute us: the price of head trauma in professional sports

Air Force-Army game Nov. 5, 2011, at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo. (U.S. Air Force photo/Raymond McCoy)

As another year of N.F.L. football approaches, a shocking report about brain injury has been rapidly buried under media hoopla for the coming season. On July 25 a study released in The Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) was found in an astonishing 99 percent of former N.F.L. players’ brains that were donated to science after their deaths. The brain disease has been linked to memory loss, depression, anxiety, loss of impulse control and even suicidal behavior.

The N.F.L. has acknowledged a link between football and C.T.E. and in 2015 established a fund for players who suffer serious medical conditions from repeated head trauma. But this after-the-fact compensation (without concerted efforts toward prevention) suggests that we are fully admitting that football players are little more than doomed gladiators, destroyed in public spectacles for our amusement.

We are fully admitting that football players are little more than doomed gladiators, destroyed in public spectacles for our amusement.


The N.F.L.’s warriors are at least wearing helmets. On Aug. 26, a boxing match between mixed-martial-arts champion Conor McGregor and veteran boxer Floyd Mayweather, hyped as The Fight of the Century, was to feature the normal required headgear for professional boxing: none at all. Both fighters are guaranteed two things: a huge payday and certain head trauma.

Presuming we are unwilling to outlaw these spectacles, we must mend what we will not end. In an era of “helmet cams” and millisecond-measuring replays, surely new technologies can also be brought to protective gear to make it more effective. Surely too the dynamics of these sports can be preserved while new rules are implemented that better protect our athletes. They are worth the cost.

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Lisa Weber
1 month 3 weeks ago

Thank you for saying this! Since I was in high school myself, I have been irked that the farm system for football is embedded in the school system. Baseball, soccer and other team sports manage to survive without being supported by the school system. I am grateful to see that schools are starting to shut down their football programs.

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