Football, War, & Brain Damage

Flyover at Tampa Buccaneers Bay game during 2012 season. Credit Cliff
McBride/Tampa Bay Tribune Staff
Flyover at Tampa Buccaneers Bay game during 2012 season. Credit: Cliff McBride/Tampa Bay Tribune Staff

Most of us watching the Navy F-18s flyover the Super Bowl or the myriad NFL tributes to the military branches and their "wounded warriors" at nearly every game probably don’t think of it as a twisted glorification of two institutions that have largely contributed to the brain damage of a nation.

Of course not. Most of us are conditioned to accept that football and the military are synonymous expressions of American identity and therefore befitting of fervent manifestations of patriotism, celebrated together under domes that might as well be cathedrals, but identified by such names as "Fed-Ex Field," or "Bank of America Stadium." Whoever came up with the idea of conflating the red-blooded American — not to mention highly commercial — sport with military service and war is a marketing genius. And the NFL has certainly run with it straight down middle – guilelessly announcing its "Salute to Service" campaign in November, all the while scooping up millions from defense industry advertisers who see dollar signs among the sanctimonious pageantry and spectacle.

"It is interesting to note how both the military at its upper reaches and the NFL are out to sell a product and have developed a certain symbiosis that fuses national greatness with commercialism," notes Antiwar writer Phil Giraldi, a longtime fan of the game who’s become increasingly repulsed as the military and NFL continue to ratchet up their mutual exploitation of one another for maximum impact.

"The huge (American) flags at football games, the repeated announcers’ expressions of gratitude for the troops ‘keeping us free,’ and the use of football game ads to aid in recruitment for the armed services," he told me, "all suggest a communality of interest between the government and America’s favorite sport."

The late Junior Seau and his children in better times. Seau, a former NFL linebacker, killed himself last year. A postmortem diagnoses found he was suffering from a brain disease caused by too many blows to the head.
The late Junior Seau and his children in better times. Seau, a former NFL linebacker, killed himself last year. A postmortem diagnoses found he was suffering from a brain disease caused by too many blows to the head.

The real perversity of it all – which turns out to be a real sickness – is that it’s becoming clear that both the military and the NFL are knowingly grinding up our young men and throwing them away for the benefit of the powerful, moneymaking machinery at the top. Case in point: the National Institutes for Health (NIH) announced last week that retired linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest last year, was indeed suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), an irreversible brain injury caused by multiple blows to the head. Seau was famous for having over 1800 tackles throughout his 20-year career, but ended his life in a mental state that left him angry, prone to mood swings and alienated from his family. If he had chosen to live, the textbook says the CTE would’ve likely led to full-blown dementia and an early death. He was just 43 years old.

He was the third NFL star to have killed himself under similar circumstances in the last two years.

But Seau has the dubious distinction of being the highest-profile football player to be linked to CTE, his diagnosis sending "shivers" through the NFL last week. It’s assumed he knew what was happening to him, shooting himself in the chest so that his family could donate his brain (CTE can only be detected in post-mortem tissue scans). The NFL, one could say, is reeling, now facing no less than 4,000 lawsuits from former players who say the NFL actually hid the risks from players and did nothing to protect them from severe, degenerative brain damage.

According to ABC news, a study at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy recently found CTE in 50 brains of deceased football players — 35 had been NFL, six of them from high school athletes. This calls into question, of course, the dangers of the sport not only at the professional level, but all the way down to the "Pee-Wee" leagues, where five concussions were reported in just one game in Massachusetts last fall.

"Pittsburgh Steelers' Tony Polamalu hits player so hard he knocks helmet off"
Pittsburgh Steelers’ Tony Polamalu hits player so hard he knocks helmet off. Credit: Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post/Gazette

CTE is not only associated with football, in fact, it was first described in 1928 after scientists attempted to put a clinical name to what was then called "punch drunk" – the phrase used to characterize the state of mind boxers were left in after too many punches to the bean in the ring. One cannot think of boxing and head injury without conjuring the image of Muhammad Ali, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984, a condition that has left him neurologically impaired and is associated with his long career in boxing. At this point, Ali has been publically afflicted longer than he was considered the world’s greatest boxer (between 1964 and 1984).

Ali and Seau are now morphing into symbols of how these lucrative contact sports squeeze their athletes until there is nothing left, and then they are left behind, shadows of their younger, more complete and virile selves. If they are lucky, like Ali, they live out the rest of their lives infirm, but in luxury, and with good doctors. Others don’t do so well. Plus, with CTE, the disease comes on slowly and manifests itself in ways that can isolate the victim from his normal support system, starting with depression and bouts of uncontrolled anger. Victims are seen as having behavioral issues, rather than a physiological illness, until of course, it is too late.

For years, the families of former Atlanta Falcons star Ray Easterling, 62, who killed himself in April last year, and former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, 50, who committed suicide in 2011, said the men struggled with mental health issues until they couldn’t take it anymore. For his part, Easterling had slid into dementia over a 20-year period, his wife reported. Both men’s brains have since been tested and showed evidence of advanced CTE.

The families of both Easterling and Duerson are suing the NFL for negligence.

Which brings us back to the military’s cozy relationships with the NFL. It seems like they now have more than just bloodlust and brawn in common. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that veterans who had sustained multiple concussive incidents in the war – no matter how "mild" — are at risk of CTE, too.

This is Your Brain on War

The post-9/11 expansion of the attack on al Qaeda and the Taliban into a full-blown occupation and nation-building exercise in Afghanistan, plus the seven-year war of choice in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, put more than 2.3 million American men and women into harm’s way in the so-called Global War on Terror.

Staff Sgt. Cory Remsburg undergoing therapy for a brain injury he received
from an IED blast in Afghanistan in 2009.
Staff Sgt. Cory Remsburg undergoing therapy for a brain injury he received
from an IED blast in Afghanistan in 2009.Credit: USA Today/H. Darr Beiser.

For years we have known that the so-called "signature wound" of this war has been traumatic brain injury (TBI), due to the proliferation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the field. In fact, according to this report by the National Center for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), head injuries and injuries due to explosions were more prevalent among the wounded than in the Vietnam War and World War II.

In fact, the Pentagon admitted in 2009 that an estimated 360,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets could be suffering from some sort of combat-related brain injury. How many Junior Seaus, Ray Easterlings and Dave Duersons are in that pool of thousands we do not know, but research is beginning to indicate that it may be a lot more than Americans are equipped to deal with.

According to a recent study published in the scientific journal Brain (.pdf), CTE can manifest itself in the brains of veterans who suffer what was heretofore considered only "mild" traumatic brain injury in combat. More specifically, the study found that "for some athletes and war fighters, there may be severe and devastating long-term consequences of repetitive brain trauma that has traditionally been considered only mild." This compliments findings last year that suggest that unlike football players and boxers who take repeated blows to the head, a few concussive events like being throttled by an IED blast in an armored vehicle, can have the same effect, and open the door to CTE or other degenerative brain diseases.

From the New York Times in May:

Scientists who have studied a degenerative brain disease in athletes have found the same condition in combat veterans exposed to roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, concluding that such explosions injure the brain in ways strikingly similar to tackles and punches. …

The researchers also discovered what they believe is the mechanism by which explosions damage brain tissue and trigger the wasting disease, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., by studying simulated explosions on mice. The animals developed evidence of the disease just two weeks after exposure to a single simulated blast, researchers found.

Now, let us ponder a few things. One, the chance that a soldier or Marine endured more than one concussive event overseas during his service seems pretty likely considering that over a million have been deployed twice or more to the war zone. According to a NYT report last March, 107,000 active duty Army soldiers had been deployed three or more times since 9/11, and "even seven or eight deployments are not unheard of."

Sure, the alarms were raised – fleetingly, it seems – and we’ve done our best to write about the pitfalls of multiple deployments for some time. Back in 2007 as President George W. Bush gave the green light for then-Gen. David Petraeus’s vaunted "surge" of troops into Iraq, cooler heads were warning that the forces were already stretched too thin.

"[Petraeus’s] main concern is his strategy," defense expert Larry Korb told this writer at the time. "He is putting his interest, which is the battlefield, before the long-term interest of the Army and of the country."

Added Col. Gian Gentile, Iraq vet and West Point professor, "[The tempo] is continuing to wear down the Army to the point of exhaustion."

But such dire warnings soon died down to a whisper, and then when Barack Obama took office in 2009, there was a little, but no lasting discussion on the health of the forces before he surged some 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, at which point the IED attacks spiked over the course of the next two years.

Consider, too, how politics and money have always superseded the health of our servicemen and women, beginning with Donald Rumsfeld’s "you go to war with the Army you have, not the one you want" in response to a question about the lack of vehicle armor, to the very fact that the surges and withdrawals have always been timed to the benefit of the man in the White House. How many head injuries were caused before they got proper Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, or because contractors out to make a buck were producing substandard helmets (examples here and here)?

Consider the minds we would have saved if we had never entered into these protracted wars of choice in the first place.

Knowing all of this should make watching the Northrop Grumman advertisements extolling the virtues of the war machine during the Super Bowl pretty repulsive. Ditto for the flyovers (which last year cost the taxpayer nearly half a million dollars), the slick recruitment pitches and the gratuitous genuflections to the veterans on the sidelines.

All of it is like placing heaps of cloyingly fragrant flowers around a corpse. At some point the stench of the truth will not be denied: that football, like war, is a killer, and the only ones who benefit are those with the gall and the greed enough to make the rest of us believe it’s our patriotic duty to support it.

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.