For Eagles' McGloin and every NFL player, new study reaffirms the risks of a violent game
A Boston University study, revealed Tuesday, strengthened the link between football and the brain disease CTE. "The choice is always there," one Eagles player said, "whether you want to play or not."
In December 2011, while he was the starting quarterback at Penn State, Matt McGloin got into a locker-room fight after practice with one of his teammates, wide receiver Curtis Drake. The circumstances that precipitated the fight aren't material here. The result is. During the brawl, McGloin's head slammed against the floor. He suffered a concussion and underwent a seizure, spending the rest of that afternoon at Mount Nittany Medical Center and missing Penn State's next game. With the Oakland Raiders last season, he took a crushing hit against the Denver Broncos, but the impact was concentrated in his left shoulder; it didn't compare to the fight. "That's kind of really the only bad concussion I've had, thank God," he said.
Bad concussion. One game.
McGloin and the Eagles had just finished practice late Tuesday morning, on the team's second day of training camp, when Boston University released the findings of a study that reaffirmed the dangers of McGloin's chosen profession. The university's school of medicine and VA Boston Healthcare System had examined, posthumously, the brains of 202 football players. Within that sample, the researchers diagnosed 177 cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, and found that the frequency and severity of the diagnoses increased as the level of football increased. There were 111 former NFL players in the study; 110 of them had CTE. There were 53 players who had played in college but not the NFL; 48 of them had CTE.
The numbers were eye-popping, if incomplete. The researchers took care to note that there was an inherent "ascertainment bias" within the study because it relied on donated brains. Presumably, a player who had not experienced the symptoms of CTE—the memory loss, the mood swings, the dementia—would have been far less likely to have had his brain included in the study. There's still no real way to estimate how frequently CTE occurs in all elite football players—there won't be until scientists devise a test to detect the disease before the person has died—but it's long past impossible to deny the risks that the NFL presents now. The league's previous attempts to quell or manipulate research and coverage of the issue of head injuries look all the feebler with every new study, every new revelation. As Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said in an interview last year and as McGloin echoed Tuesday, all the players themselves want is reliable information from which they can make their own decisions. They are men, with free will. This is what the science shows. This is what might happen to you in the next few weeks. This is what might happen years from now, once the whistle has stopped.
"The choice is always there: whether you want to play or not," McGloin said. "It's in your hands, whether you want to be there every day, whether you want to show up every day, whether you want to play this game, whether you want to play at a high level. There are a lot of guys who would love to be in the position that we're in. We understand that. There aren't a lot of these jobs that go around. You don't have to be here.
"Again, if somebody is fearful that they're going to end up with long-term effects, I do understand what can happen. I do think if you continue to get injured or you've had a few concussions and have a bit of a history, you do need to take a step back and recognize what's going on and what can happen in those situations and make a smart life decision for you and your family. That's most important. But I can only speak for myself, and I have been blessed so far to not have been dinged up too bad."
He used that word more than once, dinged, without completely acknowledging its delicate, tricky implications—the complex and challenging choices that players sometimes have to make. "We don't need to be heroes," he said. "You get hit. You get dinged up. You've got to understand, 'This is my job, and I love my job.' But you've got to take care of yourself. You've got to make sure you're healthy to prolong your career."
Sounds easy enough, but what about the marginal NFL player, the man hanging on to a job in part through his availability? What's the old line? You can't make the club in the tub. So he gets dinged, and he doesn't say anything, and he stays on the field, in the game, and he gets dinged again, and now, what has he allowed to happen to himself? How much has he changed the course of his health, his future, his life by deciding he can afford to withstand one more collision?
Jenkins did exactly that in 2015. He was concussed in a game against the Dallas Cowboys, told no one and continued playing, and said later he regretted it. A year ago, I listened as former defensive back Bryan Scott detailed how, while living a full, vibrant life, he still worried that 10 years in the NFL had begun to steal memories from him. I have two sons, one who's 6, one who's 3. The Boston University study examined the brains of 14 high school football players and found CTE in three. What if my sons want to play football? How reassuring is that finding, over that sample size, supposed to be?
Matt McGloin has been playing football since he was 5. He has loved the sport since, he said—the competition, the hard work required to excel. He got married last month. If he and his wife, Bailey, someday have a son, what will they tell him? "I can't answer that until I have a son," he said. "We'll see. I haven't thought about it a ton, but I have, and I think it's a tough decision. Every father—at least, I think, a father who plays football as a job—would love to see his son play football."
I'm not so sure about that last part anymore.