I discovered Sports Illustrated magazine early in its life and was a faithful subscriber for, maybe, 40 years. Back in the day, when the likes of Gilbert Rogin, Dan Jenkins and Curry Kirkpatrick wrote for it, it epitomized good writing in the sports field, albeit often with a smirky slant. Being a magazine it almost always weighed in on events well after they’d occurred, but usually found ways to add something to their discussion and was well worth whatever it cost.
About 15 years ago, though, I fell out of the SI habit, and stopped reupping. So did many others in our post-literate, sports-saturated age, and the magazine shrunk and began appearing less often. It got cheaper, too, so cheap that two or three years back it sent me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I mailed in my check and the mag started coming. It hasn’t stopped, even though I can’t remember writing another check.
I mostly leaf through the SIs I get, not caring much about the subject matter, but every third or fourth issue contains a piece I’m glad I read. One such is in the issue of July 2-9. By the excellent Greg Bishop, it’s titled “The Search For Why.” It’s about the recent suicide of Tyler Hilinski, a football quarterback at Washington State University, and his family’s search to make sense of an act that often seems senseless.
If you’ve read about Hilinski’s suicide it’s probably because of the news that his autopsy revealed evidence in his brain of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It’s a condition that has turned up in the brains of many former football players. It can produce chronic and debilitating headaches and Alzheimer-like mental confusion and memory loss, and sometimes leads to suicide. Hilinski, though, was no veteran National Football League battering ram but a lean and agile 21-year-old whose football history included only the youth and high-school sport in his native La Verne, California, near Los Angeles, and a handful of appearances as a sophomore backup QB in college. Bishop wrote that the young man never had a verified concussion, although he suspected he might have suffered one in a practice as a WSU freshman. His family said he’d shown none of the physical symptoms associated with CTE.
A further wrinkle is that Hilinski’s younger brother, Ryan, was a talented high-school quarterback who soon will begin his freshman year playing football at the University of South Carolina. The Hilinski family’s decision to allow Ryan to play makes up a large part of the article.
Underlying the piece is the quandary many parents like the Hilinskis face because of how little is known about CTE. First diagnosed 1940s as the “punch-drunk syndrome,” and thought to be associated mainly with boxing, the condition was tied directly to football in the early 2000s by the work of Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born pathologist in Pittsburgh who investigated the untimely deaths of ex-Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster and, later, another former Steeler.
That caused a splash, but research into the condition’s causes and consequences was delayed by the NFL’s attempts first to discredit Omalu (dramatized in the 2015 movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith) and then to steer studies away from blaming the sport. While the football-CTE link now is firmly established, as well as is the fact that less-than-concussion-level head injuries can contribute to it, it’s still not possible to identify CTE brain patterns in living humans, determine at what levels symptoms kick in, or know which types of individuals are susceptible to it and which aren’t. Many young suicides have no history of brain trauma, so Tyler Hilinksi’s action may have had nothing to do with football.
The article paints the Hilinski family as an affluent and educated one; dad Mark founded a software company and mom Kym is a lawyer. The parents do not look to sports as a “way out” of poverty or stilted ambition for their children; their oldest son, Kelly, is a medical student about to become a physician. The three boys played musical instruments and engaged in various sports as kids, assertedly not pushed in any one direction.
Kym Hilinski said she’s always viewed her sons’ football playing with trepidation. The couple is aware that if genetics play a role in CTE susceptibility, son Ryan is more likely than most to be harmed. If he were 10 years old “he wouldn’t play football because it’s too scary for me,” she admits.
In the modern way, however, the Hilinskis left the decision to Ryan, who is almost 18, and he’s decided to play, partly because he loves and game and partly as a tribute to Tyler. “I’m going to do everything that Tyler wanted to do with football,” he told Bishop. “I’m going to do that to honor him.”
I’m sure that some other parents, reading the article, will come to a different conclusion. Kids today have many sports alternatives that don’t involve the constant bang-bang of football; ones who like it rough can take up wrestling, whose physical contact is noncranial. In the last few years more of us spectators now wince at rather than applaud the frequent hard hits of the gridiron sport. If it will be difficult to watch Ryan Hilinski play for South Carolina without that reaction, imagine what it will be like for the Hilinskis.