This Friday, I am participating in a symposium presented by Cleveland-Marshall College of Law on “The Social, Ethical, and Legal Consequences of Sports-Related Brain Injuries.” The discussion features a range of legal, academic, and athletic experts covering a diverse set of issues relating to this subject.
My father, College Football Hall of Fame running back Rob Lytle, died at 56-years old in November 2010. He suffered double-digit concussions during his career and was diagnosed posthumously with moderate to severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The doctors who conducted the autopsy stated they were shocked he could still work and manage on his own given the advanced state of CTE present in his brain. My talk will draw on my experiences with my father to present an intimate look at life after football, the ugly consequences of an all-consuming devotion to a violent sport, and CTE in real-life. Some stories I covered in To Dad, From Kelly while others are new.
This topic seems especially relevant this week after the bombshell announcement from San Francisco 49ers star linebacker Chris Borland, who retired from football after one professional season over concerns regarding football’s risks and the quality of life he might experience if he continued to play. “I just want to live a long healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise,” Borland told ESPN’s Outside the Lines.
Borland’s decision incites a terrifying thought. Football is the undisputed king of sports in America. It’s also a killer. So what?
My eyes clung at sleep when my fingers tapped the first words of the first chapter I wrote of To Dad, From Kelly. The hour was small, the world still dark, and the suffering over my dad’s death still fresh nearly twelve months after I said goodbye. Tears cascaded down my cheeks while my brain, heart, head, and hands all moved in sync, all possessed by the same four word question: Was it worth it? (this chapter became “Lytle Would Play“).
The “it” in this case was football, and my father was the subject of my interrogation. Two decades of playing football had left Dad’s body and mind a “junkyard of used parts.” Still, whenever I had asked him in the past if playing football was worth the sacrifices he endured, he always answered “yes” without hesitation.
Death begs us to seek new answers to old questions, and on this morning—as I wrote—I needed to know whether the same obsession with football would consume Dad if he knew when his life would dead-end.
During his playing days—from high school to Michigan and then the Denver Broncos—Dad suffered double-digit concussions and endured nearly thirty operations on his knees, shoulders, neck, and feet. As a family, we watched as “the sport he loved had reduced this once celebrated athlete to limps and winces.” Concussions went mostly unchecked, then. Players had their “bells rung” before sniffing their way back to life with a smelling salt and returning to play. What our family failed to grasp—even as the outward traumas of replaced joints and Dad’s incessant, throbbing pain mounted—was that behind the grimaces Dad masked with a pained smile was a brain capitulating under CTE’s onslaught. Toughness and sacrifice personified Dad’s commitment to football. Disability, confusion, anguish, and a premature death formed part of his reward.
Of course, I knew as I wrote that morning (and still know now) how my father would answer my question: he’d smile, then ask to go in for one more play.
This, however, is merely one drop in a sea of stories from former and current players that make us question football’s worth. Is the sport—for the glorification and reverence it elicits from fans—worth the consequences players must endure? Do football’s lessons—teamwork, sacrifice, commitment to a shared goal—trump the costs? What if that cost is someone’s life?
Chris Borland made a brave decision that I suspect was also the most difficult choice of his life. In his early 20’s, he had the perspective to consider his life not for tomorrow, next season, or his next contract. Rather, he stared into the distance and saw the ghosts of Dave Duerson, Mike Webster, and Ray Easterling—three former players whose harrowing struggles after football and unfortunate deaths offer harsh reminders of football’s dangers. Perhaps he even imagined himself as a husband and father, and wondered if he could offer his family the happiness and presence they would need later in life if he continued playing football now.
In the end, Chris Borland had the fortitude to appreciate his future. He had the courage to say the risks of football are greater than the money, fame, accolades, stats, camaraderie, and brotherhood the sport dangles.
Once again, though, Chris Borland is just one player making one personal decision. I don’t expect a rush of players to follow him out the same door—not when more than one million high school students don shoulder pads each season. The “next man up” ethos cultivated by the NFL helps, too, as healthy replacements line the sidelines ready to replace those players injured or departed. Concerned players can exit the sport, but football will persist. The game will thrive. And in the future, more players will wither from the ill effects of playing.
Suicides, a concussion crisis, and the well-known plight of former players have not slowed football’s popularity. Despite these stories, the game barrels downfield with a full head of steam. As a result, we must first continue to educate all those associated with football on the risks, rewards, consequences, and joys associated with the game. When my dad died in 2010, my family knew next to nothing about CTE. Less than five years later, it’s a prominent subject in any football conversation. That’s progress. And now that we are more aware of the dangers that exist, we cannot run from them. We must ensure that players are competing in the safest environments possible and that we are protecting our youth from any unnecessary violence in this brutal game.
Second, football players make their livings playing through pain. They’re championed all their lives for their toughness and sacrifices, and there is no off switch for this instilled roughness once their playing days finish. A framework is needed to facilitate dialogue, treatment, and assistance for retired players and their families. There must be a community where asking for help is acceptable and not a sign of weakness. No matter how hard football players fight, they cannot outwork, outhit, or outrun CTE. This change requires a mindset and culture shift away from the masculine bravado that football epitomizes.
The question weighing football’s risks versus its rewards that Chris Borland answered will not disappear. Most will answer it differently than he did. The important thing is that we continue to raise awareness to help others make informed decisions, and that we offer them the support to succeed regardless of their choice.