Brainwashed: One man’s defiance of the science that threatens his legacy.
“Safe football” is an oxymoron. We accept football injuries in America—I know I did when I played—because we understand that glory comes at a price. And glory is currency in the land of the brave. That’s why Tom Cruise gets free meals.
But at what price comes football glory? Merril Hoge knows all too well. He nearly died chasing it. Hoge took a headshot in a game that sent him into cardiac arrest, and he retired shortly after, at the age of 29, and now, 24 years later, he brings us the book Brainwashed, to tell us what he’s been up to since. Goes like this:
He sued his former team, won, got sad for a while, then became an ESPN analyst, where he was known for his cartoonish necktie knots. It was working in television that helped heal his brain, Hoge argues well in the book. You need to constantly learn new skills in order to keep the rot from sinking in. There are good brain-health nuggets throughout, but Brainwashed was written mostly to cast doubt on Boston University’s and others’ CTE findings, and to declare football safe, alas.
You see, both Hoge and and book “contributor” Dr. Peter Cummings have dogs in the fight. Their sons play football. When Hoge’s son, Beau, was 7, Hoge convinced the local team to let Beau play with the 8-year-olds—but it was part of a package deal. Hoge would help coach.
Fair enough. Sounds like a win-win. Let the football star coach the kids. Surely he’d know what to do. But Hoge clashed with the head coach over offensive philosophy, insisting that they use practice time for passing drills, when they had no passing plays in the playbook. The head coach said, “That’ll never work in this league,” and Hoge was fired—or so it goes. So Hoge took Beau and started his own team. Fourteen years later, after serving on the board of USA Football and helping to roll out the “Heads Up” tackling initiative, Hoge is here to tell us that rumors of football’s demise have been grossly exaggerated.
“I’m not a scientist—” (INAS) Hoge tells us often in Brainwashed—“but this CTE stuff is junk science!”
So who here is a scientist again? Oh, yeah, Cummings, with a Dorito on his shoulder and a bone to pick with anyone suggesting that kids shouldn’t be running head-first into one another. The kids are fine! Look at them out there, running around, learning how to be men!
The authors do concede that there are some bad apples in youth football: the uncertified leagues like Pop Warner, and the rogue coaches who settle scores through the kids. But Hoge is different. He does things the right way. He can leap tall TBIs in a single bound. He can spot a concussion before it happens. He is like the Tom Cruise of concussion rehabilitation (two Tom Cruise references equals double points). So gifted is he that the NFL tapped him to lead the PR campaign for safe youth football, and Hoge, once again, opened up and said ahhh.
“Football is safer than it’s ever been.” This talking point is repeated throughout the book. Safe, safe, safer, safe. If you say safe and safer enough, when describing something violent and dangerous, you may change a few minds. But the essence of the game remains the same—attack. Attacks end in collisions. Collisions cause trauma. “Safe football” is an oxymoron.
Hoge defends his support of youth football by pointing out that, while the NFL and NCAA have powerful lobbies and lots of money to defend themselves against the War on Football, youth football does not. They are cash-strapped and vulnerable. There is no one to protect the kids from … people trying to protect the kids.
So, on the heels of the discovery of CTE, the NFL knew it needed to reform youth football to appease the snowflakes. And Hoge was their man. In the book, he touts Steelers head coach Chuck Noll as the technical inspiration for Heads Up, the “safe” way to light a motherfucker up. Same foot, same shoulder. Hoge assures us that the kids are in good hands using the methods of the longtime coach of Mike Webster—the Steelers center whose degenerative brain disorder got so bad that by the end he was tasering himself to fall asleep.
Now Beau Hoge, who plays at BYU, is dealing with concussions of his own. One of Beau’s recent concussions, Hoge reflects, as if under interrogation, was from “slipping in the shower”. Like any good pseudoscientist, it’s not the facts he’s after.
Though Merril and I are snipped from different garments, I know how he feels about the impending-doom part of it. Most of the questions I now field about my post-football life are seasoned with pity over what they assume is a death sentence.
“How are you doing? Are you okay?”
Well, I was, until everyone started asking me that.
Until 15 years ago, the assumption was that the helmet protected the head, and the extent of the damage was orthopedic. Now we know that it protects the skull, not the brain.
But when former players exhibit behavioral changes after their careers, it’s not the CTE, Hoge and Cummings say. It’s because they’ve lost their purpose, their team, they have no other skills, they can’t communicate, their diet is poor, they drink alcohol, they do drugs, they did steroids, they’re fat, their partners mis-remember the moods of their dead husbands. Yep, thats one of the arguments here. Their penchant for throwing everything at the wall leads to some pretty yucky revisionist history; not even the suicides of young football players are off limits. “I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Smith, but you’re wrong to blame it on football. You’re son was a drug addict.” Shit like that.
How do we blame this on CTE, they ask, when only 300 cases of CTE have been found in former NFL players? There are like 27,000 former players. Three hundred is nothing! In fact, most former players are doing just fine, according to Hoge, and he’s frankly offended that you think they aren’t. Hoge cites several former players he knows personally who are healthy, so he reasons that the widely reported tales of former player health woes are overblown. For someone who leans so heavily on, ahem, excuse me—science—throughout the book, he breezes by it quickly here.
Are there people who would like to take the NFL down a peg? Sure. And maybe some educators who disagree with the sport’s outsized role in school activities? Probably. So what? America was founded on a spirit of rebellion and anti-authoritarianism. Institutions will always be challenged. And football is an American Institution that has become too big for its britches. If its virtues outweigh the injuries, it will withstand the scrutiny.
But Hoge can’t handle the scrutiny, so he scatters the pieces on the board. “The average g-force delivered to the brain by a vigorous pillow fight is about 20 g’s,” Hoge tells us. “Should we ban pillow fights?” You see what he did there? This is “silly,” he declares with a bow. The media hullaballoo is overblown.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Hoge and Cummings often remind us after describing Dr. Ann McKee’s studies, and the ensuing coverage in the Failing New York Times. You can almost hear them shouting FAKE NEWS! This is a book that the President would likely enjoy thumbing through.
Cummings and Hoge claim that McKee isn’t qualified for the job. She is subject to bribery. Selection is bias. She isn’t studying healthy people. Or soccer players. Or women. Or women soccer players with a history of pillow fights. Causation has not been proven between football and CTE. Infinite biomarkers—weight, age, drugs, diet, steroids, alcohol, genetic, bad equipment, poor hydration, mental illness, learning disabilities—contribute. And besides, take a closer look; some of the Tau protein tangles aren’t even tangles, bro! Some of the stains on the slides aren’t Tau, Cummings tells us. The slices are too thick. That’s not Stage I CTE, that’s BBQ sauce!
Hoge’s and Cummings’s sloppy attempts to take down the CTE science have been well-documented, especially the double-standards they use on the research that supports their beliefs vs. the research that doesn’t. But either way, McKee is obviously in possession of stronger microscopes, because she finds CTE where Hoge and Cummings see only a slight inflammation; one that can easily be fixed through proper diet, weight control, sleep, exercise, brain rehabilitation, nutrients, and vitamins.
Oh, yeah, and a whole lot of football.
As I read the book about how to create the perfect brain, a brain that can not be injured even if you smashed the skull in like a watermelon, a big beautiful brain, I kept going back to Hoge’s own concussions, and his story of almost dying. Of being so fucked up after he retired that he took a sip of wine and went blind.
What was it about his lifestyle that made his brain so susceptible to trauma? He and I played the same game. Same rules. Same equipment. So why Merril and not me? What were we doing different? This is what we need to know. If we must play football, which we obviously must, can we create conditions in the brain that prevent CTE from forming at all, in spite of the frequent hits to the head?
Many of the biomarkers that Hoge mentions in the book—things that may contribute to CTE forming, like bad diet, opioids, stimulants, alcohol, mental illness, depression, obesity—are present in abundance in NFL locker rooms. The night before a game, we’d take a Toradol shot, eat chicken wings and ice cream, swallow two Ambien and go to bed, then wake up the next day and engage in high-speed, head-on collisions. That night, we’d drink alcohol, which enhanced the opioids we took after the game.
Some of these damaging biomarkers are themselves the byproducts of football collisions, created because the body itself is under attack. Depressants. Comfort foods. Narcotics. Sleeping pills. Anything to trick the body into standing in front of that runaway truck. Football fundamentals are in conspiracy against the human instinct for survival. The reward system is just so good in America. We have to be on that field. Only then will they love me.
This is not a healthy brain talking that is making these decisions.
The culture of football is ripening the Tau. Giving it a home. Promoting the inflammation. Most humans don’t have the time or energy to follow Hoge’s Big Beautiful Brain Plan, so how else can they fight it back? Tucked near the very end of the book, in a section about “alternative therapies,” is a potential solution. It is something thats already being used in football locker rooms around the country, but that no one fully understands. I credit Hoge and Cummings for even bringing it up:
“Work from 2018 sits on the cutting edge of healing science surrounding CBD or cannabidiol. Dr. Maroon’s research shows that phytocannabinoids have powerful neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties and may be effective treatments for a huge range of neurological conditions.”
The U.S. government is already hip. They own a patent on CBD as a neuroprotectant and anti-oxidant.
Cannabinoids have been found to have antioxidant properties, unrelated to NMDA receptor antagonism. This new found property makes cannabinoids useful in the treatment and prophylaxis of wide variety of oxidation associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. The cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and HIV dementia. Nonpsychoactive cannabinoids, such as cannabidoil, are particularly advantageous to use because they avoid toxicity that is encountered with psychoactive cannabinoids at high doses useful in the method of the present invention. A particular disclosed class of cannabinoids useful as neuroprotective antioxidants is formula (I) wherein the R group is independently selected from the group consisting of H, CH3, and COCH3.
Lot of big words up there but one would reason, after reading it, that some smart people believe that cannabis may help to protect the brain before an injury. That’s what “prophylaxis” is—preventative treatment. There are few professions/hobbies in which you know for sure that you’ll be sustaining brain trauma. Football is one of them. So is cannabis helping football players avoid brain damage?
This is a question we haven’t yet tried to answer, let alone ask. Despite promising evidence, accepting the challenge means acknowledging both head trauma and cannabis—two of the NFL’s biggest bogeymen.
But the findings are in the flan, as they say. The results are in the custard. You see, I’m not a scientist, either, but I’ve listened to several speak about cannabis, and they seem to believe that it reduces inflammation and restores neurological functioning after an ischemic insult—or, what you guys like to call, getting Jacked Up!
A concussion is a disconnection from the self. Anyone who has consumed cannabis knows that it makes you very self-conscious—sometimes awkwardly so. The connections are fastened up tight—and in a sport that continues to rattle, shake and inflame these neurological connections, which they tell us leads to CTE—well, that sounds to me like a good thing.
All in all, Brainwashed is a flawed book. Hoge has a long list of conflicts of interest. But if you can get over it, you’ll find yourself in an interesting space, listening to the hard-won theories of a unique pseudoscientist; a self-taught expert who, while chasing his own dragon, has uncovered some pearls of original thought.
These don’t mean he is correct, only that he is determined. Determined to preserve his legacy and stave off his demise. Ultimately, Hoge says, his message is a hopeful one: CTE is not a death sentence. In fact, CTE can only happen—he argues (and I want very badly to believe him)—if the conditions in the brain support it. It is the state of the brain that sustains the trauma that determines that brain’s cellular response.
In Brainwashed, Hoge claims that he has the recipe to make CTE a non-starter. And he just may. But unless you want to live that BBB life—that Make-Football-Great-Again life—you might just want to smoke some weed instead.
Or maybe I’m just another pseudoscientist, searching for peace of mind.
Nate Jackson played six years in the NFL and has written two books, Slow Getting Up and Fantasy Man. He co-founded Athletes for CARE, a non-profit that advocates for the health and wellness of athletes. He also co-hosts the Caveman Poet Society podcast with former NFL offensive lineman, Eben Britton. It is available on iTunes. He lives in L.A.