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Early End To NFL Careers May Ensure Healthier Futures

February 15, 2016

In the weeks leading up to Super Bowl 50, news began to surface that Detroit Lions standout wide receiver Calvin Johnson was planning to announce his retirement, saying his body "just isn't holding up."

NFL 2015: Calvin Johnson (headshot)

News of a Lions early retirement brings a reminder of Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders' unexpected retirement 17 years ago, which crushed the hearts of Lions fans.

Well, it seems Johnson and Sanders may be the wise ones.

Go ask the parents of the late Tyler Sash, a former New York Giants safety who was cut after at least his fifth and final concussion in 2013. Sash, 27, died just two years later, Sept. 8, 2015, of an accidental overdose of pain medications. But in his post-playing career, his behavior became more and more bizarre. 

According to multiple reports, in 2014, Sash took his hometown police force in Oskaloosa, Iowa, on a four-block chase while on his motorized scooter before being arrested for public intoxication. Sash's mom blamed his erratic behavior on the pain medications he was taking. However, after his death, she donated his brain to be studied for CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease caused by the repeated trauma to the brain in an overwhelming number of former players, who are autopsied for the condition.

When testing Sash's brain, doctors found the level of his CTE to be equal to Junior Seau's, whose autopsy was performed after his suicide at age 43.

So much of this sad news is just continuing bad news for the NFL, which is still in some sort of bizarre denial about the damage football does to those who participate. Commissioner Roger Goodell is so anxious to put a non-dangerous spin on the game that although he has no sons, he told the assembled media at Super Bowl 50 that he would have no problem if this hypothetical son played the game. I guess that makes sense, because his son's lawsuit against the NFL would be only hypothetical, and so would the dollars his son would win in a hypothetical court.

Want more proof? Go no further than the one-time multiple threat receiving force Antwaan Randle El, who earned more than $22 million playing football and turned 36 Aug. 17, 2015.  

"If I could go back, I wouldn't [play football]," Randle El told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I would play baseball. I got picked by the Cubs in the 14th round, but I didn't play baseball because of my parents. They made me go to school. Don't get me wrong, I love the game of football. But, right now, I could still be playing baseball."

The story goes on to detail Randle El's memory loss and tells of a young man who needs to walk down staircases sideways.

The number of players affected by CTE is staggering. In a piece for the PBS show "Frontline," Jason M. Breslow wrote that the  Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University have now identified CTE in 96 percent of the NFL players they've examine and in 79 percent of all football players they've examined.

While this has all unfolded on TV in front of our very eyes for years, perhaps it's gaining more attention due to the release of the motion picture "Concussion," starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neurologist who, in 2005, blew the whistle on the NFL in a piece he wrote for the journal Neurosurgery, in which he detailed that CTE had been found in the brain of late Steelers center Mike Webster.

According to reports, several different players have been affected by CTE in various ways.

The list includes household names such as Frank Gifford, John Mackey, Ollie Matson, Earl Morrall and Kenny Stabler, who was just selected posthumously to the NFL Hall of Fame. The list also includes Seau and Webster, and the youngest on the list was Sash.

Then there is a longer list of living players who have expressed concerns about memory loss or who have developed ALS, a disease of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. Those conditions could be early indicators of CTE. One count includes 33 players who have either discussed or are known to suffer from such problems, and some of those former NFL stars are  O.J. Brigance, Harry Carson, Tony Dorsett, Brett Favre, Bernie Kosar, Jamal Lewis, Randle El, Frank Wycheck and Willie Wood. 

When weighed against such overwhelming evidence of just how hazardous football is to the health of the participants, is it any wonder a star player still in his prime, like Johnson, says he is retiring after nine star-studded and well paid NFL seasons.

In the Sash case, the doctor who examined his brain, Dr. Anita McKee of Boston University, told The New York Times, "Even though he was only 27, he played 16 years of football, and we're finding over and over that it's the duration of exposure to football that gives you the high risk for CTE. Certainly, 16 years is a high exposure."

Fans may be saddened to learn their beloved stars are stepping away from the game they love so early. But perhaps fans can take solace in the fact that in doing so, these players may be taking the first step toward trying to ensure their future, and the future of their family, isn't also cut short.

Issue 218: February 2016