It is ever harder to watch the Super Bowl without mixed feelings. This week, as football fans geared up for the high holy day of sports on Sunday, researchers at Boston University confirmed that the late, great Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler was suffering from high Stage 3 chronic traumatic encephalopathy when he died in July.
Score one more for CTE, the degenerative brain disease increasingly linked with football. Few athletes were as charismatic as The Snake during his young, hell-raising years with the Oakland Raiders. And few men have endured a middle age as crippling.
His partner, Kim Bush, said on Wednesday that his 60s were a nightmare of memory loss, insomnia and disorientation, with headaches so severe that he often spent whole days in silence. As he witnessed other retired athletes succumbing to dementia, depression and other neurological problems, he agreed to donate his brain to science; CTE, which is believed to arise from repetitive brain trauma, can be diagnosed only posthumously.
After Stabler died at 69 of complications from colon cancer, Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who has been among the leading researchers into the condition, immediately identified the telltale shrunken temporal lobe, small hippocampus, atrophy and shredded brain tissue.
With the diagnosis, Stabler joins more than 100 of his peers, including more than a half-dozen Hall of Famers, who appear to have suffered from CTE, including Junior Seau, “Iron” Mike Webster and Frank Gifford. Bennet Omalu, the San Joaquin County medical examiner and UC Davis professor whose work was the basis of the film “Concussion,” has estimated that nine out of 10 NFL players have the affliction.
Though Stabler became increasingly private as his health degenerated, the news surprised no one who knew him. Like most pros, he had experienced football’s occupational hazards for many years before football was his occupation. By the time he retired, Stabler had spent some 28 years being tackled, starting at age 9.
After years of denial, the NFL has begun to acknowledge that CTE is a problem, and that being slammed repeatedly in the head is no different for football players than for boxers, or combat veterans, or hockey players, or any other mere mortal. California last year passed a law limiting contact practice for football players in middle school and high school, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on the issue.
But more must be done. Omalu has questioned whether there should be an age of consent for football, since the brain damage appears to worsen with the number of hits, and thus, the number of years of contact. Others believe the game needs to be changed at every level to limit trauma.
Of course, that’s not what fans want to focus on now, and who can blame them? Football is thrilling, and it’s hard to separate its mix of skill and violence and patriotism and marketing and nostalgia. Still, the casualties are mounting. Tuning them out won’t be easy this weekend, as America waits for the kickoff and Stabler’s survivors wait, shattered, for the cold comfort of possible admission to the Hall of Fame.