There are some things I’ll never forget about high school—pranking my history teacher, asking my now-fiancé to prom (and getting rejected) and writing an “educational” rap about Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. But there’s one group of memories from high school that I treasure the most, and they revolve around one thing—football.
I was on the cheerleading squad for three years before I realized I wasn’t cut out for it. I hated skirts and high-kicks, but I loved football with my whole heart, so sophomore year I made the smartest choice of my high school career and became the trainer for the Summit Christian Academy Eagles’ football team.
I was all in. I devoted myself to taping ankles, doling out Ibuprofen and cleaning water bottles for a team that I adored. Every day after school, I drove the underclassmen to football practice and stayed until everyone left. For five months every year, the team was my world.
There was one word that scared the daylights out of me during football season—concussion.Thankfully, there weren’t very many during those three years, but I knew the danger they posed, and I knew about a condition that people were barely whispering—let alone discussing—on the American news stage.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, commonly referred to as CTE, is a “degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma.” It starts with little symptoms like mood swings and behavioral changes, but with time, develops into something more. Mood swings become memory loss, and behavioral changes segue into progressive dementia. It’s not a pretty disease, and before 2002 when Dr. Bennet Omalu cited the first recorded case, it was relatively unknown.
The NFL denied it, debated it, then went to court over it, eventually paying out a massive settlement to former NFL players diagnosed with CTE. When questioned about health and safety regimens in an August fan forum, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell dodged the topic, saying, “The average NFL player lives five years longer than you…and I think because of all the advancements, including the medical care, that number is going to even increase for them.”
Goodell’s responses to CTE throughout the years have struck a chord with prominent voices in sports culture. Bob Costas, long-time NBC sportscaster, responded to Goodell’s previous statement in November, saying, “The reality is that this game destroys people’s brains. The cracks in the foundation are there.”
Football cannot be separated from American culture, and I never want it to be, but ignoring CTE is a dangerous oversight that affects not only NFL players, but also their families and fans. Without respect for their players—the men making the league possible—the NFL could swiftly lose the respect of its players, as well as the rest of America.