Manning: John Urschel’s Retirement; Bellwether For Major Problems in Football

Today, two days after the findings of a study out of Boston University were published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, showing that 110 of the 111 brains of former NFL players had CTE, Baltimore Ravens lineman John Urschel retired.

As this was being written, I almost buried the lede in prose. But that lede is far too important for me to not poster right at the top of this column.

We are living in an age of constant communication. And the proliferation of information is at critical mass. Therefore…it is fairly hard to sort through everything out there and to get to the things that will truly matter.

John Urschel is the smartest player in the NFL. I am not sure that anyone in the league itself would debate that point. Yes, Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard, but Urschel, graduated from Penn State with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in mathematics and up until today was pursuing his PH.D. in mathematics at M.I.T. while protecting Joe Flacco from oncoming pass rushers.

Urschel’s retirement needs to raise the red flag that is already flying about football to an even higher point on the flagpole. The link between football and brain trauma was a taboo subject for years. It wasn’t until 1992 that then commissioner Paul Tagliabue even began a committee for brain injuries and ten years later, in 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu, now made famous by the film Concussion, first identified Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of a former NFL player. CTE is a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated brain trauma.

The league buried research and information they had about the potential long term health risks that have been associated with concussions. In fact in 2005 the committee the NFL began stated that a player returning to play after sustaining a concussion “does not involve significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season.” It took another 11 years, until 2016 for a high-ranking NFL official to publicly acknowledge a link between football and CTE.

It took of the suicide of Dave Duerson, who could not go on living but was forward thinking enough to kill himself with a shotgun blast to the chest and not the head so his brain could be studied, it took the suicide of beloved Hall of Famer Junior Seau, and it took the horrifying incident where then Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then drove to his teams practice facility and in the parking lot asked Scott Pioli, the General Manager, to take care of Belcher’s two-year-old daughter before putting a bullet in his head in front of Pioli, his coach Romeo Crennel, and other team staffers. Those and many other instances have taken this issue from obscurity to the front of the collective mind of society.

After years of lawsuits, suicides, depression, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and CTE by NFL players, this issue has reached a head today. Named one of Forbes’ “30 under 30” in the field of science, just two years ago John Urschel said in an interview with Bryant Gumbel that “I recognize that this is somewhat irrational, but I am doing it. It’s more important to me that I’m able to do the two things I love. I don’t know if people have really done things that I’ve done before. I don’t know if they’ll do it after me. But I enjoy carving out my own path and not listening to what people say I can and I can’t do.”

And today, as a direct result of that study mentioned earlier, the smartest man in the NFL retired at 26 years old. So where does the burden fall here?

Is it with the players? Is it time for them to band together as a collective unit and demand guaranteed contracts, demand better care both during and after a career has run its course? To demand accountability to the teams and medical staffs who prescribed about 150 doses of opioids per player in 2012 and yet has ended player’s careers over the use of cannabis as a pain relief measurement?

Is it with the fans? Is it time that the fans realize that this isn’t just the pros they need to worry about? That same study that found 99% proliferation of CTE in studied brains of former NFL players, found that 89% of the brains studied overall, including high school and college aged brains as well as those NFL brains had CTE. Does the burden lie with the fans that said the main reason for the ratings drop in NFL viewership this past season were the National Anthem protests in another recent study? Perhaps they need a re-shuffling of priorities.

Is it with the teams and the league office? Most of the aforementioned issues lay with them in some capacity, and while they have stepped up their game when it comes to dealing with concussions and are paying out millions of dollars compensation to former players for previous wrong doings they will need to stay out ahead of this problem, or it will end up killing the most profitable league in America.

None of this is to mention the potential for life changing income from a football career. How a talented kid can succeed, or get off the streets and make a life for his family by sacrificing his body and well being for the rest of his life. How does that person, say no to the game that could kill him. And do the families of those players need them to do that? To die, to become a shell of themselves so that their families can live and flourish.

Today needs to be the final “wake up call.” You only get so many before it is too late. While John Urschel works to change the world of mathematics and machine learning, this debate needs to be had and more swift action needs to be taken. Right now there is a slow and steady fire burning through all levels of football and if it isn’t put out now, it could soon consume the sport in its entirety.

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