Even in glow of Super Bowl, CTE is taking root

SHARE Even in glow of Super Bowl, CTE is taking root
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Panthers QB Cam Newton (being brought down by the Saints’ Cameron Jordan) has taken hits to the head, and that should concern us. | Bill Feig/AP

As you watch SuperBowl 50 on Sunday, have a good time with the hoopla, the ads, the hyperbole and — yes — even the game itself.

But just remember entertainment is never free.

Can you be totally carefree about the spectacle, knowing some of the players are assuredly doing brain damage to themselves and others, sowing the seeds of dehumanization that may be reaped not too long from now?

The brain-trauma stats from playing football, especially playing it for many years, just keep coming in.

Recently, we found out former Oakland Raiders star quarterback Ken Stabler, who died at 69, ‘‘had moderately severe’’ chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, according to Dr. Ann McKee, the Boston University School of Medicine professor of neurology and pathology who conducted the post-mortem exam on Stabler’s brain.

‘‘The lesions were widespread, and they were quite severe, affecting many regions of the brain,’’ McKee told the New York Times. CTE is the brain-wasting disease believed to be caused exclusively by blows to the head. Dementia, memory loss, personality changes, sleeping disorders, depression and ultimately death are CTE’s toll.

Stabler’s longtime partner, Kim Bush, made it clear that Stabler had been suffering badly from brain damage for some time — 10 years was her estimate.

Stabler’s oldest daughter, Kendra Stabler Moyes, recalled when her twin teenage sons called her on the phone and said, ‘Mom, Papa keeps stopping at green lights.’ ’’

We all know about Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, the big horror stories documented in the movie ‘‘Concussion,’’ the major names that have helped bring awareness to the head-trauma problems of football. Hockey has its own list of brain-altered victims, too, from Bob Probert to Derek Boogaard to Steve Montador, the latter two of whom died at ages 28 and 35, respectively.

But there are dozens, possibly thousands of other victims of head-banging out there, some of them in the making as we watch. There was Mike Pyle, the ex-Bear who rapidly sank away and died last summer. The Boston brain-research group, led by McKee and other researchers as well as non-medical concussion evangelist Chris Nowinski, has identified more than 100 other athletes whose brains showed signs of CTE.

Former Denver Broncos running back Rob Lytle died of a heart attack at age 56 in 2010. He had been acting oddly in the years preceding, puzzling those close to him. His family recently announced Lytle’s brain was riddled with CTE. (There is currently no test to diagnose CTE in living humans.)

Then we have safety Tyler Sash, dead of a drug overdose at age 27. Sash won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants in 2012. He was among the youngest ever identified with the disease. There’s legend Frank Gifford and Ray Easterling and, of course, former Cincinnati Bengals defensive back Chris Henry, who died at 26 — all found to have CTE.

Nobody knows why some players don’t get CTE or what other factors, such as genetics or the timing of blows, might be involved. But it makes this observer wonder about, say, a marvelous young linebacker like the Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly, who suffered a concussion in the first game this season, sat out 34 days and has played ever since.

Did his brain heal? Is that enough time? Is his injury problem solved?

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was knocked silly by a helmet-to-helmet collision with New Orleans Saints linebacker Michael Mauti in December. He left the field, was tested, came back and finished the game. Afterward he declared, ‘‘Hear me when I say I do not have a concussion.’’

OK. Fine. But does he know for sure? We still don’t have a clear definition of what a concussion is. Even slight blows to the head can cause miniscule injury to some people’s brains.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, the whistleblower played by Will Smith in ‘‘Concussion,’’ recently stated he’s sure that O.J. Simpson’s bizarre criminal actions are at least partly the result of CTE.

‘‘I would bet my medical license on it,’’ the pathologist told ABC News.

A recent article in the Yale University News claims crazy Henry VIII ‘‘may have suffered repeated traumatic brain injuries similar to those experienced by football players.’’ This from a Yale expert in cognitive neurology.

Henry VIII, who took a beating in jousts and once was KO’d for two hours when a horse fell on him, died in 1547. Nobody knew anything about CTE back then.

We do now. Remember.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com

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