The Blog

The NFL's Brain Damage

As a recently suffering Oakland Raiders fan, I greeted the death of Kenny "The Snake" Stabler with a cocktail of fond memories. But it's a cocktail laced with the bitter news that Stabler, like so many of his peers, had suffered for years from the effects of concussions.
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As a recently suffering Oakland Raiders fan, I greeted the death of Kenny "The Snake" Stabler with a cocktail of fond memories of being in the Pasadena Rose Bowl Stadium delirium as he led the Raider Nation to victory in the 1977 Super Bowl.

But it's a cocktail laced with the bitter news from this week that Stabler, like so many of his peers, had suffered terribly for years from the effects of concussions incurred during those glory days. The posthumous medical autopsy of his tortured brain, and the accounts of his longtime partner about his suffering, confirmed what the NFL and its slavish fandom camp followers had long denied as to the barbarism of the sport.

I haven't had a chance to fully survey the reaction of my fellow Raider Nation fanatics, no longer being a habitué of the once exquisitely seedy Oakland bar scene now boringly gentrified by the spillover of the Silicon Valley elite, so I can only rely on the inanity of Raider radio chitchat to take the pulse of a fan base that, like all others, tends to glory in rather than be repulsed by excessive violence.

There is little talk of the mental health of the athletes, unless a needed player is forced to sit out the season because of possible criminal behavior or the more innocent case of the Raiders' center who went AWOL in Mexico the last time the Raiders got into the Super Bowl played in San Diego in 2003.

Luckily that day, I failed to complete a deeply suspect ticket transaction in a gas station with a Hells Angels type that would have emptied my bank account for the privilege of watching the Raiders go down badly to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Aside from our lack of a proper center, the opposing coach, Jon Gruden, had the advantage of being familiar with much in the Raider playbook, memorized before departing as head coach in Oakland.

Life is not fair, I know, as evidenced by the hot topic on East Bay sports radio about the Raiders' effort to blackmail Oakland once again by attempting to repeat their earlier escape to Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas or more forlorn destinations.

Being a season ticket holder who followed them down to LA, where I happen to live, and back to Oakland, I want them to stay put. The stadium is fine, and I speak with the firm knowledge of a fan who traces his life's journey as a progression from the depths of the black hole in the lower end zone to my current glorious perch in the front row of the fifty-yard line in the club level.

That is my most important achievement in life -- well, at least my favorite -- and it is about to be snatched from me by their threatened move, a betrayal of loyalty on the part of the Raider organization, though that is not my main beef today. Hell, I have voted for presidents who took us into needless wars that I felt compelled to cover as a journalist. And truth be told, I will probably be suckered into following the Raiders into their next move as long as they stay west of the California line.

But it was the condition of Stabler's brain at the time of his death that has subverted my half-century love affair with the club. And this crisis in my faith extends beyond one team to the entire NFL, where it's unfortunately endemic to the sport. The headline on the New York Times obituary put the moral dilemma perfectly: "Ken Stabler a Magnetic N.F.L. Star, was Sapped of Spirit by a Disease of the Brain."

This disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, resulting from repeated head injuries, and established with scientific accuracy only through an autopsy, has now been documented in the case of more than 100 professional football players. A recent example was the Giant's safety Tyler Sash who died at the age of 27 in September.

Seven of those diagnosed are in the pro football Hall of Fame and hopefully Stabler will join them soon. But the NFL's very lucrative tax-exempt cartel long fought recognizing the danger, and unfortunately the settlement the NFL reluctantly agreed to after growing legal challenges did not cover Stabler in his decade of suffering. Stabler, and all those whose work generates the $9 billion-a-year profit for the NFL, deserved better.