It's tricky to interpret a piece of alarming news without being an alarmist. The news Monday from inside the late Chris Henry's brain is certainly alarming. It's so alarming, in fact, that it's tempting to become an alarmist.
This is rapidly shaping up as a public health crisis among a decent-sized segment of the population, and Henry is now its seminal figure. Here's why: The Henry findings indicate the crisis extends not only to longtime NFL players but to an unimaginable amount of young men as well. If a 26-year-old wide receiver can show widespread evidence of collision-related brain damage, then every wild-eyed high school linebacker who throws his body all over the field for four years could be at risk. Every undersized Division II and Division III lineman who plays like a demon -- to the everlasting delight of his coaches -- is at risk for early dementia. The same for every FBS walk-on special-teamer who knows wedge-busting recklessness is his key to suiting up on Saturdays.
Yes, football has an image problem. The NFL has an image problem. But forget Michael Vick and his associations. Forget Vince Young and his willingness to fight to keep Hook 'em Horns in their upright and locked position. Those are tangential to the game. The Henry findings are intrinsic to it.
Henry played five years in the NFL. He was never diagnosed with a concussion. He was, however, diagnosed informally as having sociopathic tendencies -- five arrests will do that -- and we might have to reassess that angle, too.
Think about this: Roughly 50 percent of a wide receiver's life is spent taking four steps off the line of scrimmage and trying to shield a cornerback from getting across the field in case a running play breaks big. Another 25 percent is spent running untouched on a pass pattern, legally protected from contact. The last 25 percent consists of plays in which there is contact, either by tackle or legitimate blocking. These can be vicious, but in comparison to an offensive lineman or a linebacker, it's like a different game.
Chris Henry was not Hines Ward, either. So what about someone like Ray Lewis?
It's hard to imagine an event that could cause us to reassess the landscape quite this dramatically. The ramifications are deep, and wide.
It gets to the heart of our perception of the sport. Are you willing to accept a less violent game for the sake of the men who play it? To this point, most efforts to make the sport less damaging to its participants -- protection for the quarterback and defenseless receivers, to name two -- have been met with derision. Former players and the red-meat fan base start spewing the traditional macho lingo. Put a skirt on 'em and all that.
We don't want stricter rules on violence. That's why we start hearing about women's clothing. We talk about how much NFL players are paid, as if the tradeoff -- a comfortable life now for an addled brain later -- is somehow fair. These arguments are employed generally by people who (1) don't want their entertainment ruined; or (2) played the game when real men played it the real man's way, and any rules imposed to curtail injury are seen as an insult to their life's work.
There is the medical angle and the social angle. The clinical name for the condition suffered by Henry and other former NFL players is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The doctors at the forefront of this important work -- Julian Bailes and Bennet Omalu -- say CTE causes behavioral changes. Substance abuse, violence, erratic and unpredictable behavior -- it's all straight out of the handbook.
Obviously, this has the potential to be used as a one-size-fits-all excuse for the bad boys of football. But at the least, it has to cause us to reassess our reactions to the sociopathic behavior of football players. All along we've placed some of the blame on the culture of the game -- its aggression, the value it places on violence, the exalted place in which its players reside in a society that treats its best athletes as religious symbols.
Now we wonder: Could it be out of their control?
If you played high school football in a place where high school football is important, as I did, you probably know a guy who feared nobody and hit like a stock car and built a reputation that lasts a lifetime. And if that guy grew up to be a substance abuser with a sad life -- anecdotally, anyway, a solid possibility -- we just said he was a sad guy who couldn't recapture his glory days. Now we might have to rethink that dismissive diagnosis, too. Maybe someone ought to extend the study and seek to examine the brains of nonprofessionals.
Here's another question: What about performance-enhancing drugs? Are they part of the equation here? As the game has gotten bigger, faster and stronger, it has inevitably become more dangerous. (Not to mention the behavior changes caused by steroids; trust me, this thing has tentacles.) The physics of brain trauma can't be denied: Bodies have changed, but skulls and brains haven't.
What's the answer? Better helmets? Stricter rules on helmet-to-helmet contact? At the NFL level, there has been progress: Players who sustain head injuries are supposed to be prohibited from returning to that practice or game. This depends, of course, on a player's willingness to disclose such an injury. But what about high school? College? As the parent of two high school football players, I'm finding every piece of evidence growing exponentially more troubling.
Boxing is an easy comparison. Once it became obvious that boxers chipped away at their cognitive abilities with every sparring session, boxing became a less attractive activity. In turn, the sport became dominated by dead-enders -- poor kids who find direction and discipline in the sport. Boxing is often termed a guilty pleasure, but that's just a fancy way for educated people to say they enjoy watching members of the expendable class beat each other up for the entertainment value.
And now Chris Henry's brain is asking a question: Is that football's ultimate fate?