Why Athletes Keep Chasing Head Injuries

Republished with permission from The Classical.

James Harrison, the Looney Tunes linebacker who previously declined to meet President Obama at the White House, rang up a CEO recently. What Harrison admitted to the CEO is perhaps the single most honest and troubling thing an active NFL player has said since the world was forced to learn how to spell chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

It's all right here, bobbing around in a sea of marketing-speak and blue hyperlinks from a company called UNEQUAL Technologies, the premier provider of body armor for soldiers and athletes. It makes exoskeletons for Eagles quarterback-as-controlled-by-a-10-year-on-Xbox Mike Vick, according to its website.

Harrison had not been expected to play against the Ravens in Week 9, as he was still on the mend from surgery to an imploded eye socket (the medical term is an orbital fracture) he suffered a mere five weeks earlier. But, improbably, Harrison did trot out of the tunnel for the twice-yearly, sometimes thrice-yearly, festivus of neurological damage infliction, hurtful words, and hot piss otherwise known as Steelers versus Ravens. According to UNEQUAL's press release, Harrison was able to play thanks to the military-grade Kevlar lining that the company installed in his helmet.

Despite a stunning last-minute loss to Baltimore, Harrison was elated after the game. Things were different. There was an unfamiliar silence in his head, and his cranium did not ache like a motherfucker. He was so comfortable, in fact, that, according to the release, "Mr. Harrison called Rob Vito, UNEQUAL's CEO, to thank him for putting UNEQUAL CRT™ in his helmet, proclaiming it was the first time he did not experience post-game head pain or ringing in his ears." In seven years.

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Why Athletes Keep Chasing Head Injuries

The way that we talk about the NFL, or at least the way it's talked at us by the men in our televisions with the impossibly large Windsor knots, has conditioned us to see these frankly Vietnam-ish symptoms as warrior gumption. ("That's not ringing in your ears, son. That's Sam Spence's bells leading a cavalry charge up that-thar ridge.") But do something to reframe your capital-F Football-saturated mind for a moment—I recommend YouTube videos of puppies rolling around on fluffy duvets—and look again at Harrison's admission.

Stipulate, because how can you not, that James Harrison is a human paid handsomely to be a professional nutbag, and also that Harrison is an extremely self-aware nutbag who knows full well that his weekly maiming missions may be conspiring to turn his own and other players' brains into corned beef hash. Stipulate that, and this admission from one of the NFL's hardest men is still downright horrific.

And yes, of course, "It's James Harrison and he's a madman and he deserves and maybe even enjoys this kind of pain." Which might be true. But human draugrs/Friday villains aren't the only ones suffering. The man who was recently voted the nicest player in the NFL in a Sports Illustrated players' poll, Troy Polamalu, also enlisted the help of military-grade Kevlar in order to take the field earlier this month.

Polamalu owned up to sustaining "concussion-like symptoms" after a knee-to-helmet blow against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 12, and then went so far as to admit that he was scared about the long-term effects of head trauma but refused to actually say whether or not he had sustained an honest-to-God concussion. "That's the fear, I think, that any player faces, and that's the fear that anybody, any individual faces—overcoming any certain fears of being a coward, you know, or letting your teammates down or turning down a hit," Polamalu told Pittsburgh's WTAE-TV. "That's the beautiful thing about sports, is these fears are right in your face and it's pretty obvious if you turn them down or not. I have the fear. No question about it. But I'm willing to fight it, for sure."

You will not find a more intelligent, thoughtful, full-hearted player in all of sports than Polamalu. He has a beautiful wife and an adorable 3-year-old son who wants meatballs and candy for Christmas. He has a full, rewarding post-football life waiting for him under studio lights, where he will temper Trent Dilfer's dithering machismo with actual insight. At least that's the way it's supposed to end. Polamalu is supposed to be the example the NFL points to and says, "See? If you eat antioxidant-rich blueberries and read The New Yorker and manage injuries like a full-grown adult, you too can dive cranium first into the knees of running backs with zero long-term repercussions." Polamalu's supposed to know when to walk away.

Only he did not. With Kevlar retrofitted into his helmet, Polamalu took the field against the Cincinnati Bengals just seven days after sustaining his not-quite-acknowledged concussion. His fear of not being a man, of looking like a wuss in front of his teammates, trumped his fear of looking at his son at age 50 and seeing a stranger; of uncontrollably sobbing and not knowing why, like the departed NFL great Dave Duerson, or, more recently, the late 28-year-old NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard; of not remembering what he ate for breakfast that morning, like the late NHL tough guy Bob Probert. Or maybe Polamalu didn't think about all the depressing research he claims to read and be (very rightly) terrified about. Maybe he heard the echo of 65,000-strong at Heinz Field and wondered how many more times he'd hear it. Maybe he was like Scott Hall.

A month ago, ESPN's Outside the Lines did a fascinating and heartbreaking piece on former World Wrestling Federation superstar Scott Hall, better known to erstwhile Hulkamaniacs as "Razor Ramon." Chances are that sports fans under the age of 30 are more familiar with Hall's long-abandoned Razor Ramon persona than they are with the identity of their Congressional representative. After two full decades of sustaining very real head trauma in the very scripted world of professional wrestling, and self-medicating for same by gulping down cocktails of booze and prescription drugs, Hall is now a bloated, bleary-eyed ghost. The man who was once a walking embodiment of beefed-out Reaganomic Americana is now an empty husk. He still does guest spots at sad-sack independent-wrestling carnival acts throughout the country's subprime hotbeds. His friends, like former tag-team partner Kevin Nash, admitted that they are waiting for him to die. They make it sound like it would be a relief.

Hall saunters down the aisles of converted roller rinks in the Midwest through the quicksand of Xanax, Percocet, whatever, anything. He tries his best to mimic the trademark strut that once made Madison Square Garden explode. Now, people often laugh and throw garbage at him. When asked why he keeps walking through the progressively more threadbare curtains in these progressively more threadbare towns, Hall lingered on a haunting question. He asked, tears welling in his eyes, "What do you do when they stop chanting your name?"

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We think we're an adaptive species. We learn from horror and "take the appropriate measures." No one is better at this particular bit of public relations messaging than the National Hockey League. After poster child Sidney Crosby was committed to the press box for eight months due to a combination of a vicious blow to the head and poor concussion management, the league hired a Czar of Headshots, Brendan Shanahan, to review all questionable kill shots and mandated that potentially concussed players sit in a quiet room to be evaluated before returning to play. In the NHL's defense, it has been exemplary in handing out suspensions for acts of violence both egregious and borderline.

And yet even the best intentions can unravel under pressure. In early December of 2011, Crosby's own teammate, Kris Letang, was a victim in a human car wreck against the Montreal Canadiens. The man who elbowed him in the side of the head at top speed was Max Pacioretty, the very player who sustained broken vertebrae in his neck last season when he was guillotined into the glass separating the benches by 6' 9" defenseman/real-life video game boss Zdeno Chara. Montreal police considered bringing charges against Chara for the hit.

In that very same arena where Pacioretty lay motionless a season before, Letang was bloodied, stupefied, gaping, and lost. He skated off with blood pooling in a towel. Fifteen minutes later, he returned to the ice to score the game-winning goal in overtime. Letang was swallowed up by a mob of teammates. Letang's mates were careful to keep their gloves away from his gnarled face in the post-goal celebration.

Two days later, the Penguins confirmed that Letang sustained a concussion. Despite all the supposed lessons learned in Crosby's torturous absence, and despite the previously unheard of maturity and patience shown by the Penguins organization in dealing with Crosby's injury, someone let Letang back on the ice while his brain was in its most vulnerable state. Perhaps the medical staff asked Letang how he was feeling, and he dreaded being called hockey's most common and damnable slur, pussy. Maybe, like Polamalu and Harrison and Hall and untold thousands of professional athletes, he let one fear—the fear of silence—trump another.

Crosby hung his skates up again this week, indefinitely, after taking an inadvertent elbow to the face against the Boston Bruins. He felt the world tilt on its axis again and he sat, again. Instantly, the lower reaches of the internet and the talk radio sadistosphere erupted with drunk-uncle lunacy: "He's soft. He's scared. He's just got to tough it out. Rub some dirt on it." "It," in this case, being his brain.

Why Athletes Keep Chasing Head Injuries

And again, the Sunday before last, James Harrison assaulted Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy's face with the crown of his military-grade helmet. McCoy, writhing and squirming and grabbing his fucking head on the turf, was the picture of someone who a medical professional might assume had sustained terrible head trauma. And yet after a commercial break—loud noises for beer and big-ass trucks, some weepiness about diamonds—McCoy had magically sprung back to life. The Browns medical staff cleared him to return to the game after following "proper medical procedures." Proper, that is, but for the part about how McCoy does not remember anything about the game after the hit. Naturally, the Browns staff is defending its procedures.

McCoy's right tackle, Tony Pashos, invoked the car wreck analogy when discussing McCoy's dumbfounding, impossible return with reporters: "He was pretty gung-ho. I'm not a professional. I don't even know, though, how you would begin to evaluate a concussion or look at somebody. Have you guys been in car accidents? Do you look at the guy next to you? I've come up on some pretty bad motorcycle accidents on the highway and people have been talking to me and five minutes later they drop and pass out, too." And the tackle is right, here: it's hard to imagine a doctor instructing a motorcycle crash victim to get back on his hog and ride, no matter how well he fared in an ad hoc "how many fingers?" neurological exam.

When McCoy's father expressed outrage that the team let his brain-swelled son back onto the field, the league had a potential mess on its hands. So the Goodell Administration did what it does best. It shifted the narrative. The league office suspended Harrison one game for his admittedly vicious hit. The tweeters and TV chuckleheads and horrible people at the office exploded with righteous indignation; Harrison himself tweeted "LOL," appealed the suspension, and lost. The NFL's narrative conveniently elided the tragic ineptitude of Cleveland's corps of sideline Dr. Leo Spacemans, put it all on the barbarians again, and moved on.

Of course, the NFL's concussion pandemic doesn't start and end with James Harrison. He's both a patsy and a willing boogeyman. He is the bad guy, and proud of it, and as such is Goodell's public relations dream—a villain out of a nightmare, fully realized and sitting on the edge of the bed in all his brooding batshit glory. The NFL is good—astonishingly so, to the point where it's tough to ever quite notice it doing it—at pushing its stark-raving, trembling, broken-down old soldiers to the margins. They are kept away from public view and trotted out briefly when the occasion arises. We see them only as their younger, beautiful selves in living eulogies produced by NFL Films. But the next time Polamalu or McCoy or anyone stares into the bucket of a Kevlar-lined helmet and prepares to take the field, bracing himself for the inevitable headaches and darkness to creep in, he should think not of the myth of Dick Butkus or the ghost of Hank Stram telling him he's not a man if he doesn't put a goddamn hat on somebody. He certainly shouldn't think of what his teammates will say.

Instead, he should think of Scott Hall rambling down the dark, desolate corridors of some backwater venue, grinning through a hail of beer cups, going through his motions in a living oblivion. We keep asking how these proud/crazy gladiators can keep inflicting this horrific pain on themselves, how even the smartest among them will willingly dive headlong into an early grave. And then we glorify a particular kind of masculinity—the kind of tangible, cathartic machismo on display when James Harrison marches out onto the field with a mushy eye socket, not the much-harder-to-define masculinity Sidney Crosby showed when he let the world rain shit on him for daring to rest his beleaguered brain for eight whole months. We do all that and then we look through poor ghostly Scott Hall, who listened to the wrong ringing in his ears, who couldn't escape an athlete's most powerful drug. Us.

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Sean Conboy is the sports editor for Pittsburgh magazine. Read his recent profile of NHL superstar and hilarious person Evgeni Malkin or follow him on Twitter.

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