The Ultimate Penalty: The Price of Contact Sports

Concerns about the long-term effects of contact sports continues to grow. 

By Kat McGowan|Saturday, September 01, 2012
football
football
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At first, former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson dismissed the controversy over head-to-head hits in football. Slamming hard into opponents, going back on the field even if you couldn’t see straight—this was how the game was played. And he had come through just fine. Duerson had graduated from Notre Dame, played 11 years of pro ball, and was now the successful owner of a food-packing business.

But concerns about the long-term effects of contact sports kept growing. In 2005 forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of a retired pro football player. This disease causes symptoms ranging from irritability and aggression to headaches, memory problems, and depression. In postmortem studies, the brains of people with CTE are shrunken and choked with tangled protein clumps. Omalu and other pathologists soon found CTE in other football players, as well as pro hockey players, wrestlers, and college athletes. More and more retired athletes went public with memory and mental problems, and there were prominent suicides.

Publicly, Duerson continued to defend aggressive hits in football. But secretly, he began to worry. His memory was failing. He had headaches. He had become angry and impatient. Friends and family said he was no longer the self-controlled businessman they knew. By 2008 his business was in receivership, and he and his wife split up. On February 17, 2011, Duerson killed himself with a bullet to the heart, leaving a note requesting that his brain be donated for medical research.

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