Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Media Coverage of Hidden Brain Damage Mounts

Recently Deceased College Football Player Diagnosed with CTE

            Former University of Southern California standout and professional ranks surface-scratching offensive lineman, Chris Brymer made a seemingly graceful transition from a brief, journeyman’s professional football career to founding his own mortgage company.  He then gradually slipped into a delusional state, which started with severe bouts of paranoia involving his wife before progressing to his making claims that he can control the weather and spending most of his workdays staring out his office window watching birds.  As outlined in Peter Jamison’s in-depth SF Weekly article, “Head Case,” Brymer’s story, which will likely become a watershed case in the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, recently took a decisive turn.  After months of living on the streets of San Francisco, Brymer is currently charged with four counts of felony assault stemming from an altercation at a soup kitchen allegedly including a racial epithet.
          The drumbeat of media coverage of CTE, a debilitating form of brain damage caused by repeated physical head trauma being diagnosed in a growing number of deceased professional football players, mostly offensive linemen, has increased to a volume difficult for the National Football League to drown out with its steadfast rhetoric denying a connection between the condition and the sport.
          The marquee case so far in the study of CTE and its apparent, though yet unproven, connection to football is that of legendary Pittsburgh Steelers center, Mike Webster.  Known as “Iron Mike” among Steelers fans, Webster started a remarkable 150 consecutive games for the black and gold, anchoring an offensive line that helped deliver a four-pack of championship trophies to the rough-and-tumble steel town.  He played in 16 NFL seasons, an exceptionally long career at the punishing position.  A former University of Wisconsin honor student, Webster spent much of his life after retiring from the NFL living out of his pickup truck and in train stations.  In her revealing October 2009 GQ article on CTE, “Game Brain,” columnist Jeanne Marie Laskas lists among Webster’s strange behavior before becoming homeless, urinating in his oven, applying Super Glue to his rotting teeth, and using a Taser gun to treat back pain.
Dr. Bennet Omalu
          As reported by Laskas, it was then-Allegheny County Coroner, Bennet Omalu, who—working under the direction of renowned pathologist Cyril Wecht—performed the autopsy on Webster which prompted him to coin the term, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  CTE has symptoms similar to those of Dementia Pugilistica, or "Punch-Drunk" Syndrome (a condition common among boxers), but is distinguished by an excessive presence of Tau protein.  After positive diagnoses of a few more former NFL players and a back-and-fourth rhetorical battle in which the NFL tried to marginalize him, Omalu and colleague, Dr. Julian Bailes formed a coalition with Webster’s lawyer, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Chris Nowinski, a former pro wrestler suffering from CTE-like symptoms.  Nowinski split from the group after a disagreement regarding the rate at which their findings should be publicized.  He took his mission to Boston University where the B.U. Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy was then formed.  Omalu and his remaining colleagues formed the Brain Injury Research Institute based out of Morgantown, West Virginia, and were eventually joined by Garret Webster, Mike Webster’s youngest son who acted as his primary care-giver during the 3 years leading up to his death at age 50.
          The brevity of Brymer’s professional career along with the Boston University group’s recent diagnosis of CTE in 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania offensive lineman, Owen Thomas, who committed suicide in April, adds credibility to the previously de-emphasized notion that the condition is not exclusive to players who reach the professional ranks.  It’s not easy to assemble a clear, itemized, year-by-year account of Brymer’s career by means of an internet search.  According to Jamison, he played 2 seasons with the NFL Europe’s Reign Fire, but his L.A. Extreme player bio page indicates only one.  Brymer played for the Extreme for one year after leaving the Reign Fire.  Brymer’s relatively brief pro football odyssey, then, adds up to a maximum of 3 full non-American-NFL seasons peppered with stints on a few practice squads.  At USC, he was a 3-year starter, including starting 7 games as a red-shirt freshman.
          Jamison article includes mention of the likelihood of CTE being associated with college level play as do previously published reports on the condition.  At a bail-reduction hearing, though, Brymer’s attorney stated that, “Mr. Brymer began to develop comprehension and communication problems, possibly related to a degenerative brain condition from his years as a professional football player.”  At best, the statement can be construed as an ultimately inconsequential oversight by a busy lawyer.  Nevertheless, it brings into question how closely she examined both her client’s career history and the existing media coverage of CTE, particularly that of the Thomas case, and underscores the prevailing sentiment that the condition results only from professional-level competition. 
          Mitch Berger, a U.C.-San Francisco neurosurgeon and chair of an NFL subcommittee on the health of retired players, denies a causal relationship between CTE and the game of football, mainly by pointing out that the number of positive diagnoses is relatively miniscule in comparison to the total number of NFL players over the years.  Said Berger, as quoted by Jamison, "In all of professional football, I think there are somewhere around 11 or 12 confirmed cases of CTE.  Now, think about that.  There are a lot of people who have played football, and most them have no problems."  In his September 13th New York Times article on the Thomas case, "Suicide Reveals Signs of a Disease Seen in N.F.L.," Alan Schwarz reports that CTE has been “found in more than 20 deceased National Football League players.”
          According to various reports, the players most affected by the condition are, not surprisingly, offensive linemen who are by default subject to a disproportionately higher number of head blows over the course of a career, or just a season, than any other player position.  Conversely, after his recent death from a strange auto-related incident, an autopsy of Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver, Chris Henry, yielded a positive CTE diagnosis.  Even one with a layman’s knowledge of the sport knows that, although they are often subject to devastating hits in the open field, wide receivers are at the opposite end of the spectrum from offensive linemen regarding the estimated number of head-blows received according to position.
         Jamison’s article also states:
While Brymer acknowledges that his years as an offensive lineman involved “a lot of head-banging,” he says he never reported a concussion.  No matter: Repeated head trauma over long periods—most of it probably suffered in practice, not during games—is believed by researchers to be the likely cause of CTE, rather than isolated concussions.
While extracting the truth from dedicated and highly motivated college players dreaming about the big leagues and the big bucks would be difficult--and from high school kids eager to please coach, nearly impossible--any player or coach who’s been out of organized team sports for an extended period, who’s emotional attachment to the game has ebbed, will agree that the intensity of play reached during practice in most team sports simply does not compare to the intensity reached when a W, when the money, is on the line.  (See NBA star, Allen Iverson’s comments regarding practice.)  While preseason camps are known to be grueling, the higher the level, the easier practices get as the season wears on, if for no other reasons but to minimize the risk of injury and save energy for games, particularly in football.
          Because of the ever-escalating level of competition in football, from high school varsity to the pros, and the fact that the amount of cash flowing increases exponentially as one gets closer to the top, the emerging, damning crisis of CTE is not likely to any time soon induce coaches to offer the following instructions to the big heavies battling it out in the trenches: “Um, hey guys.  Um…from now on, don’t hit each other too hard and, uh, try not to bang heads.  Ok?”  After you ask any coach about the intensity of play during practice, ask him where the game is won and lost.  Invariably, the answer will be, “At the line of scrimmage.”  It is an adage that is not just universally agreed upon within the sport, but one that truly transcends the game.  It’s why fans of Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, and Georgia still plan their year around annual grudge matches commonly known to end in scores like 10-7, or 14-3.
          Unfortunately, then, Jake Simpson is likely correct in his assertion, as explained in his Atlantic article, “Will Concussions Kill Football?,” that the blossoming CTE crisis portends the end of the sport, at least as we know it.  When blocking for a running play, 300-pound offensive linemen spring off the line, initiating a short charge toward a line of 280-pounders charging at them.  Often the row of individual collisions morph into a brief, rugby-like scrum with six or eight of these behemoths slamming into each other as a ball carrier and maybe a blocking back try to negotiate a path sometimes around, but often through the melee.  It is in these scrums, in addition to that initial crunching collision on the snap of the ball, that many of the CTE-inducing hits likely occur.  Often during such situations, one or two lineman will stumble or get knocked to one knee while the play is still alive, thus becoming easy targets for head-shots.  In pass-blocking, on the other hand, the offensive linemen stand nearly straight up, extend their arms to gain some control over the attacking defensive linemen, and slowly backpedal, usually spreading apart from each other, creating a line of separate one-on-one match-ups as they form a protective “pocket” for the passer.
          No need to brainstorm to get an idea of the likely evolution of the sport.  A working prototype already exists, being played just a block or 2 away from the stadium.  Scoff if you like, but pass-happy arena football with it’s 3-man line is a compromise any mother, and probably a few more fathers than you might think, or would like to admit, can live with.  Says Chris Brymer’s ex-wife Lisa, “I could never see my son turn hollow like that.  I don’t want him anywhere near the sport.”  
          Mothers cringing at the announcement that little Joey is trying out for freshman football may be nothing new, but the ante has been upped to the risk of an undetectable, debilitating brain injury that has been diagnosed posthumously in both an NFL legend who ended up broke and on the street and a 21-year-old lineman from a sub-mid-level college team who abruptly committed suicide.  Now it is suspected in a former hard-working USC lineman and successful mortgage broker currently homeless and facing up to 15 years in jail.  Schwarz’s article also includes mention of a deceased high school football player whose name has been withheld at the parents’ request.  Boston University’s autopsy of the young man revealed “incipient traces of the disease.”  


My Photojournalism:
Writing/Journalism Notes
It took me about a week to write the bulk of this.  From the various reports used, I was seeing a lot of different numbers of NFL players diagnosed.  It wasn’t until I thought I was done that I decided to attempt to contact BIRI for some stats.  I actually traded a couple e-mails with Garret Webster, but he wasn’t getting back to me.  It got to the point where I didn’t want to let it linger too long because of the change in Brymer’s story, so I just went with Schwarz’s number of “more than 20,” which I believe is the same number Simpson used.  In hindsight, I should have attempted to contact BIRI and B.U. right off the top just for up-to-date numbers and then added them to the piece as is.  But who knows—had I planted that seed early enough, I may have gotten an interview or 2.

There’s no original reporting here, just me chiming in with a piece that kind of summarizes while linking the various sources.  (Can there, by the way, be a better biblio entry than a link within the narrative?)  I’d read the GQ piece when it came out, so when I saw the Brymer piece, I thought, “Why not?”  I didn’t start this blog with the intention of being a news source that people actually follow and read.  I meant for it to be an online portfolio of my writing.  However, it has been indicated to me that it has actually gained a bit of a following, which is just awesome.  Please come back.

I should admit that I did do quite a bit of tweaking while waiting a week, which included a 3-day weekend, for a response from Webster.  I made a conscious effort on this one to do it in the style of a reported article, as free from opinion or speculation as possible, though there is some regarding the possible reaction of coaches and the future of the sport.  But those speculations are grounded in knowledge, so I confident in them and went with them.

The graph explaining the origins of the two research groups was originally positioned after the Berger quote, intended to end with numbers from both groups on how many NFL players they’ve examined, how many where diagnosed positive for CTE, and how many of the subjects from the positive and negative group, respectively, were O-linemen.  When I decided not to wait for the numbers, I realized I had to move the graph and was happy to see that it fit nicely where it ended up because it starts with a Laskas reference who was originally referenced late in the previous paragraph.  It really worked out well.  But it’s not my favorite example of paragraph movement in this piece.

Of all the cool things about writing, identifying effective rearrangement of paragraphs ranks very near the top on my page.  It’s like friggin’ magic.  It’s particularly good when done with graphs that have been complete and done and somewhat forgotten about.  It wasn’t until I was nearly finished with the full, un-tweaked body of this piece that I realized it might be neat to reverse the first 2 graphs.  What is currently the second graph was originally the first and vice-versa.  Making a move like that and instantly recognizing that it’s better that way is a very cool thing.  This one worked out perfectly.  You can’t just toss them around freely, but I think being able to do find such opportunities indicates good things about paragraph structure and tightness of the overall piece.

One other thing that was cool about this one is that when I finished it, I knew it was pretty tight.  I’m happier with it than other recent posts, probably because it’s not flippant at all, yet still has some instances of understated creativity.  I thought about blowing out the part about California football and Brymer’s attorney, but it tied in because Brymer went to USC and wasn’t that much of digression overall.  If I had to cut, it would be the first thing to go, but isn’t that what an editor’s for?  Call this the “Director’s Cut.”

My post titles are usually some sort of play on words, but that didn’t seem appropriate here, so I tried to come up with a good newspaper-style headline that wouldn’t be flippant at all.  I guess magazine’s and weeklies go with titles like “Game Brain” and “Head Case” regardless.  I guess that’s the nature of it.

Does anyone care?  Am I giving too much away?


1 comment:

  1. It's more prevalent than most people know: