Thursday, January 31, 2013

I am not Watching Super Bowl This Year

The Korean is boycotting the Super Bowl this year. In fact, the Korean will never watch the NFL again, unless the league finds a way to dramatically reduce the level of brain damage that the players suffer. If this means American football no longer exists in the current form--instead evolving into something like touch football or rugby--I'm fine with it. If this means the death of football in America, I am ok with it.

Here is why.

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One of my fondest memories from law school involves 1987 Chicago Bears. Not that I watched the Chicago Bears in 1987--more accurately, the memory involves a virtual simulation of the '87 Bears. 

In law school, my closest friends--let's call them JA, RT, and SW--and I wasted a lot of time together. RT had bought a hacked Xbox from eBay, which came pre-loaded with many classic NES games. One of the games was Tecmo Bowl, a video game from 1988 that primitively simulated the NFL at the time. RT and JA would play Tecmo Bowl together, while SW and I would watch the game, drink beer and crack jokes. 

RT favored San Francisco 49ers, which featured a fearsome aerial attack with Joe Montana. JA would always play Chicago Bears, relying on Walter Payton's running game. But--because we were idiots--the absolute highlight of the game featured neither of the Hall of Famers. For us, the moment we always waited for was when Chicago's safety made an interception of Montana's pass. Then the cheesy, 1980s NES graphics would flash this across the top of the screen: "INTERCEPTION!!!!!" This would be followed by these following letters: "DAVE DUERSON!!!!!!!" 

None of us has ever heard of Dave Duerson, who was a safety for the Chicago Bears in Tecmo Bowl. But that did not stop us from cracking jokes--mostly juvenile puns involving the last name "Duerson." The longest running joke was that each time Duerson made an interception, he would "Duer" RT's mom. The joke kept running because the virtual Dave Duerson would make plays like clockwork. Duerson in our Tecmo Bowl games would make about 10 interceptions a game, largely because of RT's overconfidence in the Niners' West Coast Offense. With SW, a masterfully funny guy, this joke expanded into the ones featuring various places and manners in which Dave Duerson would have sex with RT's mother.

For one Super Bowl, we decided that the four of us should kill 100 cans of Coors Light that day, and play more Tecmo Bowl before the game came on. With about five beers in, I foolishly declared that I would shotgun a can of beer each time Duerson made an interception. I don't remember how many cans of Coors Light I drank in what could not have been more than a 20 minute span, but they were enough to make me black out for the entire Super Bowl game, muttering: "Dave Duerson, you did this to me, you're awesome."

(More after the jump.)

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Dave Duerson, S, Chicago Bears

After our Tecmo Bowl days were over, I forgot all about Dave Duerson. It was several years after I graduated from law school that I came across an article on that mentioned his name. The article was a profile of Bears' legendary nose tackle, William "Refrigerator" Perry. After retiring from football, the "Fridge" was living a broken life marred by alcoholism, obesity and poor financial decisions. The article briefly mentioned Duerson's name--as it turns out, Dave Duerson was one of the few former teammates of Perry who worried for him, and ensured that Perry was cared for.

After reading the article, I googled Dave Duerson a bit, because until then, Duerson to me was not much more than a set of a few crude pixels named after him. I found that Duerson really was a good football player. He was a two-time All-American at Notre Dame. He won two Super Bowls--once with the 1985 Chicago Bears. Twice, he made second team All-Pro, and played in four Pro Bowls. Even better, he was one of those athletes who managed to make something out of himself after his playing career was over. Duerson was a multimillionaire; he owned a number of businesses after he retired, and was quite successful running them. And most importantly, Duerson was a decent man who took care of his teammates years after they stopped playing together. His story warmed my heart.

Just a few days later, I would hear about Duerson again. JA emailed me: "TRAGEDY". The attached link said Dave Duerson died at age 51. Cause of death was unknown. We noted the tragedy, real (Duerson was only 51) and comical (who will now make me shotgun 10 beers in 10 minutes?) We decided to have a Dave Duerson Memorial Beer Summit, time and place TBD.


A few weeks later, I read a column by Bill Simmons, in which he railed against NFL team owners. In the column, Simmons pretended that he was a heartless NFL team owner. One of the last lines of the column read:
Heck, I don't even care that one of my former employees was so destroyed mentally by [concussions] that, instead of just killing himself, he made arrangements ahead of time for his brain to be studied by [doctors], then shot himself in the heart. It was the creepiest, most haunting story in recent memory, the kind of incident that makes you sigh and say, "Wait, what are we doing to these people?" I don't care. I don't care. I don't care.
It was the first time I heard this--that a former NFL player shot himself in the heart, just so he could make sure that doctors could take a look at his brain. Curious, I googled: "NFL player suicide brain injury." The first result was this article from
Dave Duerson, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, tragically chose to take his own life last week.
But when the 50-year-old former NFL safety and successful entrepreneur shot himself in the chest, there was another purpose: so that his brain could be donated to Boston University researchers and studied to assess the life-long neurological effects of playing in the National Football League.
For sure, it has been an incredibly enlightening year in the NFL with regards to the present-day and long-term consequences of concussions and similar traumatic brain injuries caused on the gridiron. Duerson, cognizant of and confident that he was suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy—a debilitating brain injury that has stricken many current and former football players, from college to the pros—texted family members only hours before taking his own life, imploring them to have his brain donated to those who can study it for evidence of the condition.
In fact, when police arrived at Duerson’s apartment, they found a hand-written note: “PLEASE, SEE THAT MY BRAIN IS GIVEN TO THE NFL’S BRAIN BANK.”
My heart sank.

I am actually a big fan of toughness. In this blog, I yelled at people who wouldn't engage in rote memorization of foreign language vocabulary to "suck it up, you soft sack of shit!" My preference is the same when it comes to my sports watching habit--I love athletes who play through the pain. 

As a Lakers fan, my biggest sports hero is Kobe Bryant. One of the qualities that I admire the most about Kobe is that he is an absolute warrior when it comes to playing through pain. Kobe keeps playing with three broken fingers, two of them on his shooting hand. Kobe keeps playing after getting fluid drained from his knee. I have a bad knee--a ski injury from I was young. The MCL in my left knee is arthritic, like a slowly unraveling piece of thread. I can't even finish a round of golf without downing four pills of Advil. If I ski two days in a row, I can hardly walk the next day. Kobe runs and jumps on his bad knees every day. That gives him a heroic quality.

Besides, injuries happen in sports. Heck, death can happen in sports. No aspiring pro athlete would be ignorant of the fact that bodily injury comes with the territory when one is playing sports for money. Sometimes basketball careers end tragically, like the way Shaun Livingston's promising young career was destroyed by catastrophic knee injury. But those things happen. To his credit, Livingston returned to NBA and is actually a decent backup PG. But even if he could not play basketball again, Livingston must have known that injury could happen to him. Knee injuries happen all the time in basketball, and there is no mystery as to the consequence of a severe knee injury. 

Plus, Livingston was paid well for taking this risk. Even just with his rookie salary he already earned more money than most people will ever earn in their entire lives. As long as Livingston makes sound financial decisions, there is no reason why he could not live a comfortable, normal life with his wife and children.

But--can we say the same things about a former football player with a brain injury? Ever since the news of former NFL players suffering brain damage after retirement began trickling out in the last couple of years, I became increasingly unable to watch the game, because I cannot say yes to that question.

Brain injury is not like knee injury, or any other physical injury. My knee injury did not change who I am. Brain injury would have. If there is any body part that determines who you are, it is your brain. Your personality, your intelligence, your emotions come from your brain. Your speech, your vision, your balance come from your brain. Everything about you starts from the brain. And we still have no idea exactly what part of the brain controls what part of our body and our mind.

I can say in good conscience that people should be able to risk a lifetime of arthritis in exchange for playing sports. But can I say in good conscience that people should be able to lose their sense of self in exchange for playing sports? I know that tough guys like Ed Reed (who was one of my favorite guys to watch in football) say that they signed up for the risk. But I am not sure if any NFL player is aware of the full ramification of the risk that they signed up for, when nobody in the world really knows how the brain works.

The last days of Dave Duerson give a glimpse of how his brain damage might have destroyed the successful life that he constructed after he retired from football. Duerson was good at business. He graduated with honors as an Economics major. After he finished playing football, Duerson purchased an industrial farm and pushed its annual revenue from $24 million to $63.5 million in six years. But only a few months before he committed suicide, Duerson was bankrupt, with less than $20,000 in assets. It is hardly a stretch to think that chronic traumatic encephalopathy--or CTE, which causes early onset dementia, depression, and God-knows-what-else-because-we-have-no-idea-how-brain-works-exactly--interfered with Duerson's business judgment. As Miami New Times put it: "Dave Duerson was once a millionaire and a CEO. When he took his own life in the throes of dementia, his most valuable asset was a nine-year-old car."

Dave Duerson was 51 when he killed himself. Would Ed Reed be thinking about what his life will look like in 15, 20 years? Would an aspiring young NFL player be thinking about his life when he is 50? How could you possibly plan for your life in the future when you are no longer yourself, and you have no idea how you will change? Can you imagine how your life would be if you were dumber and more forgetful? How about if you were more impulsive and violent? Would you trust yourself to have a job, or run a business? Would you trust yourself around your wife and children?

As my mind was processing Duerson's death, I had a flashback of many awful head injuries I have seen while watching live football on television. I remember Jahvid Best falling on his head while scoring a touchdown. When I saw his body stiffening up, I thought he died or at least would never walk again. ( I remember when Cal's Tom DeCoud clocked a UCLA player during a DeSean Jackson punt return--the UCLA player got up, took a few steps, and collapsed again like his legs suddenly turned into paper. ( (At 1:40 mark.) I remember seeing Pat White--one of my favorite college QBs ever--not falling, but dropping like a brick after getting hit in the head. ( In my life, I must have watched more than twice as many hours of basketball than football, and three times as many hours of baseball than football. But only in football I thought--more than a few times--someone just died on the field.

Can I stop watching football? Even with all these things swirling in my head, I actually had a hard time answering no, because I love football. I love the under-appreciated cerebral nature of the game. Shoot, I love the hard hits too. I love the way football puts me through the emotional highs and lows like no other sport. I love the fact that football connects me to a larger community of like-minded people. I love the fun tailgates, the time spent with my friends and fellow fans. I love the visual memories that football gave me. The view of the sun setting into the San Francisco Bay, seen from the Tightwad Hill overlooking the Memorial Stadium, will forever be one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. I couldn't quit cold turkey, so I hung on. I kept watching football through the 2011-2012 season, although less frequently and less joyfully.

Junior Seau
Then came the last straw. On May 2, 2012, Junior Seau killed himself. Like Dave Duerson, Seau shot himself in the heart. By following the news, I belatedly learned that Ray Easterling, the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit against the NFL, also committed suicide on April 19, 2012. (Autopsy showed that both Seau and Easterling had CTE.) I also learned that the number of plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit was greater than a thousand. More than a thousand brain-damaged plaintiffs, all former NFL players. The list of players include Super Bowl MVPs, Hall of Famers, multiple Pro Bowlers. And I knew that, in my lifetime, many of my favorite NFL players will end up on the same list, as long as we cheer them on to ram their heads against each other over and over and over.

I could not take it any more. In the last season, I did not watch any NFL game, did not play fantasy football, and did not read any NFL-related sports news. I declined all invitations I received for a Super Bowl party. This Sunday, I plan to cook a nice dinner for my wife instead. The television will be off.

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  1. I really respect your decision to not support football anymore.

    By the way, we actually do know quite a bit about which parts of the brain control what. For example, the very front part of the brain, which is a part that is very easily damaged because it can ram against your skull if you hit something with your head, is responsible for what is generally thought of as good judgement and personality. People who have injury specifically to this part of the brain have trouble with decision-making and with impulse control, leading to loss of marriages, jobs, and savings.

    What we don't understand very well is how CTE occurs. We do know that the plaques and tangles seen in CTE patients resemble those seen in Alzheimer's patients, but we don't understand how those physical plaques and tangles arise biologically from the injuries sustained in concussions. We know that increased rates of concussions increase the frequency of CTE, but we don't know why in some people, CTE shows up right away and in other people, it takes decades. We don't know why the damage shows up in the places in the brain where it does. We really don't know how to get rid of the plaques or renew brain cells. In short, we don't know anything that could prevent CTE after repeated head trauma or reverse the course of the disease once it's started.

    And we didn't know we didn't know any of this until very, very recently. It would have been impossible for most of today's players, even, to "sign up for" a risk that no one knew they were taking.

  2. It's not only football. Girls' soccer is second only to football when it comes to concussions and severe brain injuries. Here is part one of the NBC news story about the horrific price many of these young girls are paying and playing through. Girls with long, thin necks are most at risk from headers and aggressive play, especially as most girls aren't getting the neck strengthening conditioning that boys get while participating in sports.

    Part two of the video is down a few paragraphs in the story, and it is a bit rough to watch. It's truly shocking/sad to see and hear these girls who have been forced out of the game actually wanting to return to it even with all the health risks as they now are fighting against depression and whether or not to take their own lives because they can't play a sport (a game) anymore.

  3. As a former football fan who hasn't watched four of the last five Super Bowls, and hopes to make it five of six this year, I say welcome to the club. It's really not as bad as some people might think.

  4. I'm not a huge football fan, but I have to say, this is a time honored American tradition that I think too many people are not really coming up with any good solutions to. Everyone wants to bastardize it by having it so it, as TK says, "no longer exists in the current form--instead evolving into something like touch football or rugby."

    I was really hoping that in that very long post, I was going to get some more of a solution rather than just a bunch of lamentations about a game that everyone knows is violent. I guess we all make our own decisions about what we'll put up with in terms of what constitutes an acceptable level of danger. For TK, the line is at what changes you as a person, distinguishing a knee injury from a brain injury. To each his own, but I think there are some real ways to fix this.

    I really like the idea of getting rid of the helmet. Unless they made them huge like an airbag, there's pretty much no way to really prevent concussions. The brain sits in the skull the way it does because God (or evolution whatever your method of choice is) made it that way. But these helmets are doing the same thing as seat belts, but worse. With seat belts, there have been more accidents per 10000 drivers, though there are less fatalities. The helmet may lessen acute injuries, but I think ultimately makes the players more careless. This happened with seat belts, though since it seems that long-term, we're not even getting the benefits that seat belts provide with helmets. Football is NOT suffering from being a tougher game. In some ways, it is less so. For example, things that are penalties now, like clotheslining, were once legal tackles. The thing is that these guys are more padded.

    I don't mean to sound preachy, but I just was hoping TK would have some more cool and clever solutions, as I know he is capable of providing. I like the idea of no helmets personally, or at least minimal helmets, like the old days. We have a pain response to things so we won't do them; I think it's time getting hit in the head started hurting.

    I also am not watching the Super Bowl, but that's really only because I don't like the teams. I'm in San Diego (Junior Seau was/is much loved here), and we're almost never in the Super Bowl. That, and I find 49ers fans annoying, and they beat us in '95.

    1. I doubt that getting rid of the helmet would work. The whole reason why helmet was introduced to football in the first place was because people regularly died on the field while playing football.

      Thanks for trusting me to come up with a creative solution, but I really don't see a good way out of this mess other than changing football in a way that it no longer exists in the current form.

    2. I think the problem isn't the technology or engineering know-how, but the will. We got military equipment that pretty much makes an American soldier impervious to battlefield hazard short of a close-proximity explosion. I'm pretty sure we can figure out helmet designs (the key might be a structure that surrounds the neck that would transfer force from helmet to shoulder pads) that would prevent concussions from people tackling each other.

      Basically, if enough viewers/fans/players demand that NFL spends significant resources to figure this problem out, it will happen. TK's superbowl boycott is a very good idea in that respect.

  5. I think this is the best article I have ever read on this site. I am not a football fan. I just don't like the game. Maybe it's the Caribbean woman in me, but I'm not into players throwing themselves on one person and just overall ferocity of the game. Obviously, coming from the Caribbean, I didn't grow up watching football and none of my friends really like the game.

    I have a strong dislike of any sports where brain injury is so common. It's heartbreaking when you think about what these young men are doing to themselves. Yes they signed up for it, but as you stated, they can't see the future of what the decision will amount to. Football is too dangerous and if I ever have a son in the future, I would dissuade him from playing it because getting his head bashed in is not something I would be able to handle as a mother. If he does it on his own accord, I would be devastated as well, but you always can't change one's desires easily.

    I applaud you for being so insightful and upstanding. You're able to see beyond the bright lights and the multimillion dollar contracts; beyond the pleasure and excitement of the game. You're looking at it through your heart and analyzing it with your mind. You see it from the perspective of not only a fan, but as a human being, who is genuinely concerned for the well-being of the players. I genuinely believe that you are a good person. We need more fans who can take a look at the game and see that it can be a catalyst for death when the lights in the stadium shut off and the players have long hung up their NFL jerseys. Anything that would rob a person of who they are is not just a game, it's a death sentence and I don't want any part of that.

    P.S. I never knew you went to law school. Now I know why you're so smart.

  6. Listen...People play football for the love of the game and with any luck a some will make it to the proffessional level. But there is nobody forcing these people to play. They continue to play because of their love of the game. We don't need more of people like you telling other people what to do. We have way to much of that already in our lives!

  7. Not that I find the topic of football boring (although I do) or don't like Spain, but maybe there is something we could discuss about Korean culture?

    For example, I am very interested in child rearing practices in ancient Korea. About 1,000 years ago where were little newborn kids sleeping - on the floor with their parents or in a special kind of crib? If they were sleeping on the floor with their parents - were there any cases where little kids would be accidently suffocated by their parents? I know in other cultures it was quite common, but they did not sleep on the floor, so I am interesting if sleeping on the floor actually makes a difference.

    I have many other questions and hope they can be discussed. My other question - I know that when children in Korea are growing up, their parents give them some nutritional supplements. What are nutritional supplements - just vitamins or something else?


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