Over the past few years, a group of women have taken charge of bringing the impact of National Football League (NFL) brain injuries to the attention of government officials.
A great deal is owed to Kwana Pittman, niece of Andrew Waters. Waters was a former NFL safety who took his own life in November 2006. Once an "upbeat and playful" individual, according to Pittman, he became "profoundly depressed" in his final years. It was shortly after her uncle’s death that Pittman received a phone call from former Harvard football player and professional wrestler Chris Nowinski. Nowinski was researching the effects of concussions and asked Pittman if researchers could analyze parts of Waters’ brain. A middle school teacher with an interest in biology, Pittman convinced her family to agree to the tests.
Waters’ brain was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease brought about by repetitive trauma.
Drawn to the study of football related brain trauma was Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist from Boston University School of Medicine and a Green Bay Packers fan whose favorite player, Willie Wood, now has dementia. McKee, one of the nation’s leading neuropathologists, was approached by Nowinski to help examine the brains of deceased NFL players. Among the positive outcomes, McKee was able to help the widows of several players better understand what exactly had happened to their husbands and their brains in their later years.
Gay Culverhouse, former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has admonished the National Football League’s playing down of the seriousness of concussive injuries sustained by players. She recalls her father, former NFL team owner Hugh Culverhouse, having little regard for the safety of his players and their health. "Now I’ll stand in front of a truck to make things right," she said. Now she has the Gay Culverhouse Players’ Outreach program to assist former players who’ve suffered severe brain trauma as a result of playing the game.
This past Monday Eleanor Perfetto, wife of lineman Ralph Wenzel, defended her husband’s worker’s compensation claim stating that his seven seasons as a lineman had a direct effect on his early-onset dementia, calling it "an occupational hazard."
Similarly, Sylvia Mackey, wife of former tight end John Mackey, has made several personal appeals which have resulted in the league and the union establishing an assistance plan for families who have former players with crippling early-onset dementia – The 88 Plan.
With all of this weight behind their argument, it’s easy to see how Representative Linda T. Sanchez, Democrat of California, would take their side. Her remarks criticizing the NFL and its concussion policies led to several changes in league protocol last fall.
And it may be that Sylvia Mackey’s words best describe what it is like now for these wives of former football heroes: "[it’s a] slow, deteriorating, ugly, caregiver-killing, degenerative, brain-destroying tragic horror."
This writer is a huge fan of football. I have watched it since I was old enough to walk; I played it through high school (dreaming of playing in the NFL, but realizing, like most high school athletes at some point, that I had neither the size nor ability to play at that level). I watch and follow my teams closely. Football players are our modern-day gladiators, in my view. That all being said, it is a dangerous sport, and that is part of the appeal for those that play it, coach it, and watch it. I understand the large contracts the players receive, because their bodies take a tremendous beating during their usually short careers. I applaud all of the efforts being made to protect the players, including those mentioned above on behalf of brain-injured players (those suffering a concussion or multiple concussions). I hope these efforts continue and grow, and that we find, through better technololgy perhaps, even better helmets for the players. But, I also encourage the league to help out those players who have received crippling orthopedic inuries that likely will be with them for life, for these injuries also take a tremendouse toll on these once tremendouse athletes.