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Can a neurosurgeon be an NFL fan?

Illustration by Mark Smith

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's September 29 Fansourced Issue. Subscribe today!

A FEW YEARS AGO, former Pro Bowl defensive back Shawn Springs was convinced Wake Forest University neurosurgeon Alex Powers posed the most serious threat to the future of the NFL.

Powers, a specialist in sports-related injuries and a member of a research team co-directed by Virginia Tech's Stefan Duma, has been studying the effects of repetitive hits on the brains of high school players, and his results are ominous. Springs, the co-founder of Windpact helmets, met Powers while researching possibilities for safer equipment, and Powers let him in on some of his preliminary findings. As Springs recalls, "I told him point-blank, 'Alex, if this stuff ever goes public, you're gonna scare everybody to death. The stuff you're uncovering is going to kill football.'"

Powers remembers laughing at Springs' prediction. He grew up a football fan in football country, in Orlando, Florida. Two of his sons, ages 13 and 11, play the game, and for vacation he took them to the Seahawks' home opener and Michigan State-Oregon. His passion for the science has a simple motive: He wants to make the game safer. But, of course, there's nothing simple about what he is doing, straddling the line between his love of the game and the hard truths of his research.

The NFL's weak reaction to domestic violence, and the pressure the reaction has put on Roger Goodell, has rightfully dominated headlines in recent weeks, but brain trauma remains the game's never-ending threat. And against the backdrop of high-profile NFL suicides, diagnoses of dementia in scores of former players and class-action lawsuits filed by hundreds of retired NFL athletes, Powers' findings are chilling. According to his data, even one year of high school football alters the white matter 
of a teenager's brain, in proportion to the volume and force of hits he experiences. The brain's white matter, which is commonly studied in concussion research, allows different regions of the brain to communicate and takes signals from the brain to the spinal cord.

In San Francisco this April, the scientist and the fan in Powers collided as he presented his findings before 1,000 members of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. In addition to detailing changes in brain shape, he said it was unclear whether the brain of a teenage football player would ever fully regain its original form and function. One colleague told Powers his research ethically compelled him to become an anti-football advocate. And former players suing the league asked him to join their cause, believing his work provided evidence that the NFL is responsible for their current conditions. Powers declined, wanting his work to stand for itself. "I was totally naive about it. I thought people would see the data and say, 'This is awesome. No one has ever looked at it this way,'" he says. "Instead, I got, 'You have to kill the game. There's no way, as a physician, you can condone the data.' But I think the NFL is a good thing because it brings people together and gives them joy."

As he continues to study hits on the field, Powers knows there's no escaping the collision between politics and science. "There are just so many agendas," he says. "My research is about the effects of repetitive injury on the brain at the high school level. It doesn't say a single thing about the NFL, but after every presentation, everyone wants to talk about the NFL. People have to take a step back, especially on concussions, especially on the NFL. It is orders of magnitude more important at the high school level. If we can make that safer, we can make the NFL safer."

Hard as he tries to stick to his role of scientist, neutrality seems impossible as the stakes rise and football feels increasingly like a life-and-death sport. "My son plays quarterback, and it is the safest position on the field," Powers says. "My 11-year-old plays running back and linebacker -- the worst two positions on the field in terms of volume of hits. But I'm trying to be more 'Dad' and less 'Let's look at the MRI.'"

Maybe there's no way out for Powers and someday he must choose sides. Maybe there's no way out for football either, because the data is too empirical to massage, its consequences too serious to ignore. The problem with football has always been football, and maybe Alex Powers is just too good at his job, his findings undermining even his best intentions.