What's wrong with football? It's written in the pain on Greg Hadley's face. The senior from Colgate University, a two-time all-conference linebacker on the school's football team, is sitting in a Bedford, Mass., laboratory, staring at shattered brains of dead football players. On this Friday afternoon, Hadley has come to visit Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University neurological researcher who has received a dozen brains donated from former NFL, college and high school players. In each one, it's simple to spot a protein called tau, which defines a debilitating disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Common symptoms of CTE include sudden memory loss, paranoia and depression during middle age. The disease is also known as dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunk syndrome, because until recently the overwhelming majority of its victims were boxers. Not anymore. Researchers like McKee have found a deep and disturbing association between CTE and America's most popular sport.
Hadley wants to see, in raw, microscopic detail, what could await him. All CTE victims have had some kind of head trauma, and Hadley has received four concussion diagnoses during his college days. As they examine images under a microscope, McKee tells Hadley that the brown splotches represent the dreaded tau buildup in the brain. The brains are as brown as the pigskin itself.
Hadley lets out a quiet "Jesus" and sinks in his chair. His girlfriend stares at him, looking as if her cat just died. "I had no idea it was all over the place like that," Hadley says. He glances at a picture of a normal brain next to the stained brain of a deceased player. "You look at something like that and think, This is your brain, and this is your brain on football."
On Feb. 7, some 90 million people will watch the Indianapolis Colts play the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami. Perhaps the Roman numerals are appropriate. Although football hasn't quite reached the bloodlust status achieved at the ancient Coliseum, the path to Super Bowl XLIV is strewn with the broken bodies and damaged brains that result when highly motivated, superbly conditioned athletes collide violently in pursuit of glory. The more we learn about the human cost of this quintessentially American sport, the more questions are being raised regarding the people who run it and play it. More than 3 million kids play football at the youth level, and an additional 1.2 million suit up for their high school teams. So football's safety issues reverberate far beyond the NFL. From within the NFL, and without, a consensus is emerging that reforms are needed to keep football from becoming too dangerous for its own good.