On an episode of the current season of the popular Netflix reality docuseries “Last Chance U,” Isaiah Wright — star sophomore running back for East Mississippi Community College — gets pulled from a game in the first half for precautionary measures, having sustained a concussion the week prior. During a dramatic halftime exchange with a coach who explains they are trying to protect him, an irate and desperate Wright shouts, “I don’t care about me, I wanna play football! I’ll die for this damn sport!”
Wright’s precarious affinity for football is motivated as much by economics as his passion for the game. A foster youth abandoned by his single mother, the talented Tennessee native sees the violent sport as his one chance at “making it” in life and realizing a more fortunate existence for himself and his loved ones.
Wright is not alone. For numerous young African-Americans and their families across the country, football is commonly viewed as their “one shot” at changing their impoverished reality. Despite the daunting odds — a mere 3.9 percent of Division I draft-eligible collegians of all races were chosen in the 2016 NFL draft — the potential rewards of a lucrative NFL contract often outweigh the inherent dangers of a brutal game.
Unlike the mental fog suffered by a concussed baller, these dangers have recently become clear. In a new study by Boston University researcher Dr. Ann McKee, Mckee examined the brains of 202 deceased football players and discovered 110 of the 111 brains of NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma. To make matters worse, 56 percent of the brains of collegiate players studied had severe CTE, and 44 percent had mild cases, as did the brains of three high school players. Even mild cases are known to present a troubling array of progressive symptoms, including depression, behavioral abnormalities, anxiety, memory loss, impulsivity, explosive anger, cognitive issues, suicidal tendencies and abuse, both chemical and physical. The study further revealed the most common cause of death among those with mild CTE to be suicide. Such recent and revealing data has caused a number of players to walk away from the game.
“When you’re running down the field full-speed on kickoff team, they relate the impact to that of a car accident,” says Michael Peterson, an Atlanta-based entrepreneur and former defensive back and special teams player for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. A member of Tech’s 2009 ACC Championship team, the talented painter and conceptual artist has drawn attention to the violence and toll football takes on players through artwork exhibited at museums and galleries across the country. “In the late ’60s or early ’70s, there was an article in Life magazine on football, and the title of it was ‘Suicide Squad,’” says Peterson, who, during research for an art project, found that the moniker was what players of previous generations commonly used to call the kickoff team. “It kind of blows my mind that they were forecasting what’s transpiring today.”
African-Americans comprise 70 percent of current NFL players. Given that a third of white NFL players occupy such low-collision positions as kicker, punter or quarterback, Black pros are far more likely to sustain concussions. While the NFL has gone to great lengths to keep a lid on the link between repetitive head trauma and progressive brain disease, its more recent commitment to minimizing such injuries can only do so much in an inherently violent sport.
Especially since the trauma need not be repetitive. “When you suffer a blow — a single blow or repetitive — you may have immediate symptoms or may not have immediate symptoms,” explained Dr. Bennett Omalu in a December 2015 interview with Vice Sports. Omalu, the forensic pathologist and neuropathologist portrayed by Will Smith in the film “Concussion,” first recognized CTE as a serious concern for sports involving head trauma. “The absence of symptoms does not mean you haven’t suffered cellular injury,” he said. “CTE is neurodegenerative. It gets worse. Concussion is part of the spectrum, but it is not the underlying cause. The underlying cause is [brain trauma], the factor that initiated the cascade of events.”
Still, while many acknowledge the risk, American dreams die hard. An estimated two-thirds of Black boys believe they can be professional athletes, and African-American parents are four times more likely than white parents to believe the same. Such dreams are fostered by years of propaganda, in outdated Horatio Alger references and endlessly looped depictions of urban lotto winners. They have little relation to the infinitesimal chances and stark realities they obscure. Even when presented with the grim reality of the odds they face, that athletes are exponentially more likely to get head trauma than an NFL contract, many cling to these dreams, as they are unwilling to face the spirit-breaking economics of their absence.
“A lot of folks in sports are using it as their ticket out of their circumstances,” says Peterson, noting the competitive edge of teammates playing “for a way bigger reason.” For such players, concussions are mere and expected bumps on their field of dreams.
“I haven’t had any recorded concussions,” offers Peterson, intoning about how head trauma commonly goes untreated at all levels of the game. “But I have had my bell rung, I have seen stars, I have been dizzy and I have had the little ones.” These are unlike a normal injury, he says, where “Someone is going to cart you off the field or you’re going to limp off. With concussions, you don’t really recognize them, especially the small ones.” In addition, says Peterson, football is “a very masculine sport, and its hard sometimes to say that you are in pain when a limb is not dangling.”
Even so, football isn’t all about pain, trauma or impossible dreams. Beyond the brutality lies power, speed, strategy, technique, intellect and, yes, even beauty and grace. Those who doubt this have likely never played the game, never fully recognized its artistry, or never truly appreciated the gridiron’s storied past, nor its fast-paced present, as represented by the ballet-like fluidity of a Gale Sayers, a Lynn Swann or an Odell Beckham; the power and drive of a Jim Brown, a Walter Payton or a Marshawn Lynch; the awe-inspiring dominance of a Lawrence Taylor or a Reggie White; the skill, precision and intellect of a Warren Moon, a Steve McNair or a Cam Newton; the symphonic movement of a Barry Sanders; and the once-in-a-lifetime instincts and ability of a Sean Taylor.
Undoubtedly, the game imparts its many lessons, ones particularly valuable for less fortunate youth regardless of whether they play for a year or two decades. It offers all the components of a compelling metaphor for life — active awareness, situational analysis, intense preparation, discipline, decision making under pressure, mental and physical toughness, teamwork, strategy, effective management of fear, and mastery of self.
That said, it is a sport of contrasts, one as destructive as it is constructive, as expressive as it is debilitating. Outside of the kickers who occasionally prance upon the field to apply their specialty at little risk, and the zebra-striped whistle-toters who dot the field just out of harm’s way, no one can escape its violence. Make no mistake, the game has a cost, one far more pricey than the admission paid by legions of rabid weekend groupies to witness the punishing spectacle.
Peterson is ever reminded of this. One of the reasons he portrays the cost and violence of the game in his art is his connection to an NFL idol who succumbed to the sport’s dark side. “I did have people that I grew up with that committed suicide because of football,” he says, citing the shocking July 2012 suicide of NFL defensive back and fellow Tampa native O.J. Murdock. Murdock’s brain was one of those subsequently studied by CTE researchers. Noting he played football with Murdock’s little brother in Tampa, Peterson details how the tragedy inspired his 2014 artwork “Pursuit of Vanity: Pistol Formation,” which consists of the jersey nameplates of famous NFL players who have committed suicide. The nameplates, including that of late All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, are hung in the shape of a pistol.
“When I added O.J. to the list, it felt surreal, it felt awkward,” acknowledges Peterson. “These things are continuing to occur, so I’m honoring these guys but also shedding light onto the severity of the situation.”
Still, despite the established dangers, there is ever that slim chance, one steeped in the passion for and the economics of a violent-yet-lucrative sport, that a kid from the lowest socioeconomic rung of our society can separate from the pile, break free from those trying to pull him down, and win at the larger game of life. In a recent segment for “The United States of Football” — a documentary exploring the cumulative effect of repetitive head trauma and based on a father’s uncertainty over allowing his son to play — Pro Football Hall of Fame member and current commentator Cris Carter spoke openly about the inherent health hazards of his beloved game. Responding to the need for the NFL and related media to promote an awareness of these hazards, Carter clarified why many, like Isaiah Wright, will continue to brave the risk.
“I believe,” said Carter, “it is also our responsibility to convey to kids that they have the right to have the same dream that I did.”