‘I’ll Die for This Damn Sport’: Football, Concussions and Why African-Americans Continue to Brave the Risk
D. Amari Jackson
On an episode of the current season of the popular Netflix reality docuseries “Last Chance U,” Isaiah Wright — star sophomore running back for East Mississippi Community College — gets pulled from a game in the first half for precautionary measures, having sustained a concussion the week prior. During a dramatic halftime exchange with a coach who explains they are trying to protect him, an irate and desperate Wright shouts, “I don’t care about me, I wanna play football! I’ll die for this damn sport!”
Wright’s precarious affinity for football is motivated as much by economics as his passion for the game. A foster youth abandoned by his single mother, the talented Tennessee native sees the violent sport as his one chance at “making it” in life and realizing a more fortunate existence for himself and his loved ones.
Wright is not alone. For numerous young African-Americans and their families across the country, football is commonly viewed as their “one shot” at changing their impoverished reality. Despite the daunting odds — a mere 3.9 percent of Division I draft-eligible collegians of all races were chosen in the 2016 NFL draft — the potential rewards of a lucrative NFL contract often outweigh the inherent dangers of a brutal game.
Unlike the mental fog suffered by a concussed baller, these dangers have recently become clear. In a new study by Boston University researcher Dr. Ann McKee, Mckee examined the brains of 202 deceased football players and discovered 110 of the 111 brains of NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma. To make matters worse, 56 percent of the brains of collegiate players studied had severe CTE, and 44 percent had mild cases, as did the brains of three high school players. Even mild cases are known to present a troubling array of progressive symptoms, including depression, behavioral abnormalities, anxiety, memory loss, impulsivity, explosive anger, cognitive issues, suicidal tendencies and abuse, both chemical and physical. The study further revealed the most common cause of death among those with mild CTE to be suicide. Such recent and revealing data has caused a number of players to walk away from the game.
“When you’re running down the field full-speed on kickoff team, they relate the impact to that of a car accident,” says Michael Peterson, an Atlanta-based entrepreneur and former defensive back and special teams player for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. A member of Tech’s 2009 ACC Championship team, the talented painter and conceptual artist has drawn attention to the violence and toll football takes on players through artwork exhibited at museums and galleries across the country. “In the late ’60s or early ’70s, there was an article in Life magazine on football, and the title of it was ‘Suicide Squad,’” says Peterson, who, during research for an art project, found that the moniker was what players of previous generations commonly used to call the kickoff team. “It kind of blows my mind that they were forecasting what’s transpiring today.”
African-Americans comprise 70 percent of current NFL players. Given that a third of white NFL players occupy such low-collision positions as kicker, punter or quarterback, Black pros are far more likely to sustain concussions. While the NFL has gone to great lengths to keep a lid on the link between repetitive head trauma and progressive brain disease, its more recent commitment to minimizing such injuries can only do so much in an inherently violent sport.
Especially since the trauma need not be repetitive. “When you suffer a blow — a single blow or repetitive — you may have immediate symptoms or may not have immediate symptoms,” explained Dr. Bennett Omalu in a December 2015 interview with Vice Sports. Omalu, the forensic pathologist and neuropathologist portrayed by Will Smith in the film “Concussion,” first recognized CTE as a serious concern for sports involving head trauma. “The absence of symptoms does not mean you haven’t suffered cellular injury,” he said. “CTE is neurodegenerative. It gets worse. Concussion is part of the spectrum, but it is not the underlying cause. The underlying cause is [brain trauma], the factor that initiated the cascade of events.”
Still, while many acknowledge the risk, American dreams die hard. An estimated two-thirds of Black boys believe they can be professional athletes, and African-American parents are four times more likely than white parents to believe the same. Such dreams are fostered by years of propaganda, in outdated Horatio Alger references and endlessly looped depictions of urban lotto winners. They have little relation to the infinitesimal chances and stark realities they obscure. Even when presented with the grim reality of the odds they face, that athletes are exponentially more likely to get head trauma than an NFL contract, many cling to these dreams, as they are unwilling to face the spirit-breaking economics of their absence.