As NFL fans gear up for the Super Bowl this Sunday, they have been hit with some sad news -- legendary quarterback Kenny Stabler has become the latest high-profile former player to be posthumously diagnosed with the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE, which is believed to be the result of repeated blows to the head, has been found in a host of ex-NFL stars, some of whom took their lives after years of battling the effects of the disease. Stabler, who was named a NFL Hall of Fame finalist this year, died last summer from colon cancer, but according to the New York Times, he also had advanced CTE. His partner, Kim Bush, said the disease "robbed him of the last 15 years of his life."
Stabler's diagnosis presents a sobering counterpoint to the pomp and circumstance surrounding Super Bowl 50, which will surely be the biggest cultural event in the nation in just four days. The two teams competing for the Vince Lombardi trophy, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, are known for their old school (often described appropriately as "smashmouth") style of aggressive defense, which puts a premium on hard hits and vicious tackles.
Fans of professional football consider the sport's violent aspects a significant part of its appeal, but with increased awareness of player injuries, a feature film on the subject and a rash of players retiring prematurely, citing health concerns, the NFL may have a crisis on its hands.
The public's familiarity with CTE in particular has increased in part due to the efforts of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was the subject of a major motion picture ("Concussion") starring Will Smith last year. The film dramatizes Omalu's discovery of CTE in deceased players and his efforts to get the NFL to pay more attention to the problem. The league was supposed to participate in a multimillion dollar study of the disease led by the National Institutes of Health, but their involvement ended late last year.
ESPN's "Outside the Lines" reported at the time that the NFL cut ties with NIH after they learned that Robert Stern, a Boston University professor of neurology and neurosurgery who has been highly critical of the league, would play a prominent role in the study. However, the NFL has disputed that allegation, with the league's spokesman tweeting that the "NFL did not pull any funding. NIH makes its own decisions.” The NIH has also maintained that their research into links between football head trauma and lasting brain injury still enjoys the support of the NFL.
Stabler, who won the NFL Offensive MVP award in 1974 and let the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl title in 1976, largely kept his symptoms -- which included hearing high pitched ringing sounds, severe headaches, teeth grinding, and a loss of sense of direction -- under wraps from family and friends. But after legendary former linebacker Junior Seau took his own life in 2012 and was subsequently diagnosed with CTE, Stabler volunteered to have his brain donated to scientific research. He also lent his name to a high-profile lawsuit against the NFL brought by former players to seek compensation for past concussions.
"For our viewing pleasure, they pay for it with their bodies and now we find out, their brains," Bush, Stabler's partner, told the Times. "I don't have any personal resentment or anger at the NFL, I'm not afraid to speak up and say they've got to stand up, they've got to do what's right. We know the helmet is not the answer, there has to be something done about the contact."
Another former Super Bowl hero, ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Antwaan Randle El, recently said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that if he could go back, he would never have played football in the first place. Although the 36-year-old former wide receiver has not been diagnosed with CTE, he has admitted to struggling with memory loss and having difficulty making it up and down stairs.
In the same interview, Randle El predicted that, due to the physical cost of the game and increased awareness of the permanent repercussions from injuries, “I wouldn’t be surprised if football isn’t around in 20, 25 years.”