When Gale Sayers’s wife revealed a couple of weeks ago that the former great football running back has dementia, the Chicago Tribune website story was accompanied by a picture of Sayers and his Chicago Bears teammate Dick Butkus, standing side by side at some event or other. The photo looked recent and both men looked hale. That goes to show that looks can be deceiving, because Mrs. Sayers said that her husband had been displaying signs of the condition for the past several years.
In Bears’ lore Butkus and Sayers personify the rough and smooth of their violent sport, their careers and lives uncannily parallel. Born six months apart (Butkus turned age 74 in December, Sayers will in May), the two were drafted moments apart by the team in 1965-- Butkus with the No. 3 overall pick, Sayers at No. 4. Both were All Pro selections before being shot down by knee injuries. Both gained first-ballot election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Looking at the picture I wondered why their lives had diverged of late—why Sayers fell victim to the brain-injury scourge that is affecting many football veterans, while as far as is generally known Butkus thus far has been spared. The ferocious Butkus, after all, played two years longer than the elusive Sayers, and at his linebacker position probably sustained the more and harder hits. If either man came away addled it would seem more likely to have been him.
The same sort of comparison, I think, should be the new focus of research into sports-connected brain injuries, the subject that leads any current discussion of boxing, hockey and even soccer in addition to football. Except to the willfully obtuse, it now has been firmly established that the blows to the head that are routine in those activities can cause cognitive and communicative damage or worse, sometimes surfacing years after the athlete’s career has been completed. What needs to be established are the factors that separate those who fall victim to such tragic outcomes and those who don’t.
Concern about the long-term effects of head trauma is nothing new; I wrote about them in a 1982 front-page story in the Wall Street Journal headlined “Silent Epidemic.” Most of the examples in that piece were of people who’d experienced falls or car or motorcycle accidents, but the medical profession long has been aware that sports also can cause such injuries. What physicians call “dementia pugilista,” the Latin name for “punch drunk,” has been in the literature for decades, and it requires no great mental leap to equate the bang-bang-bang of football with what goes on in the prize ring.
Surprisingly, the link didn’t much register on the national consciousness until the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu became public a dozen years ago. Dr. Omalu was a pathologist in the Alleghany County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh who was on duty in 2002 when the body of the former Pittsburgh Steelers’ center Mike Webster was brought in for autopsy. The Nigerian-born doctor, not a football fan, wondered why a robust-looking man of 50 was homeless and destitute, and prematurely dead of a heart attack. His examination of Webster’s brain revealed evidence of a type of brain injury called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, something previously found in boxers. When he later discovered the same pattern in the brain of Terry Long, another former Steeler who committed suicide at age 45, he published his findings in a 2005 medical journal article that gained attention.
Dr. Omalu’s discoveries, and the pushback against them from the National Football League, were chronicled in an HBO documentary and in the 2015 movie “Concussion,” starring the popular actor Will Smith. By that time Omalu’s work had been widely confirmed and soon formed the basis of a lawsuit settlement in which the NFL agreed to pay about $1 billion to former NFL players who claimed they’d been misled by the league over the seriousness of their head injuries.
Evidence of the link between football and the various forms of dementia continues to mount. A Boston University study of the brains of 91 deceased former NFL players showed that 87 of them showed signs of CTE, although perhaps not enough to cause acute symptoms. A 2016 Florida State University study of 40 living retired NFLers who’d averaged seven seasons in the league, using MRI scans and concentration and memory tests, showed that 17 of them (43%) had “measurable” impairments. Anyone who now considers pro-level contact sports to be healthful exercise probably also is a member of the Flat Earth Club.
Still, many and seemingly most men who engage in such sports walk away mentally whole; for one such example scroll down a couple of pages and see my blog on Alan Page, who followed 14 seasons of battle in the NFL’s trenches with a distinguished career as a lawyer and jurist. Learning what characteristics Page had that his less-fortunate brethren lacked would do more to advance gridiron safety that any of the helmet improvements the NFL is said to be studying.
Or look at George Foreman, the former heavyweight boxing champion who, after finally quitting the ring at age 48 after a 19-year career separated by a 10-year hiatus, today is bright and chirpy at age 68, continuing as pastor of a church he founded, pitching commercial products and occasionally appearing as a TV boxing commentator.
There’s painful irony in contrasting Foreman’s outcome with that of his most-famous opponent, Muhammad Ali. Before their “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974, Ali hung the mocking title of “The Mummy” on Foreman, then a suspicious and inarticulate younger man uneasy in the spotlight. Now Foreman sails on while the once-glib Ali has died, having spent the last 25 years of his life palsied and all but mute from his boxing-related Parkinson’s disease.
Ali fought 61 pro bouts to Foreman’s 81. Ali was hard to hit for most of his career while Foreman was slower and more vulnerable. Ali was the more favored in every easily visible way. But now it’s time to go beyond appearances to the molecular and find out what really separated the two men.