MINNEAPOLIS -- Despite an expanding body of evidence linking brain damage to violent collisions on the football field, Bob Stein can still indulge in a little gallows humor. "The good news," he said, "is that I can't remember how many concussions I had."
The attorney and former Minnesota Timberwolves president spent eight years knocking heads as an NFL linebacker. One injury he does recall -- just barely -- happened in 1971, when his Kansas City teammate Willie Lanier tried to stop O.J. Simpson on a kickoff return by swinging a fist at him. Lanier missed and hit Stein instead, knocking him unconscious.
A doctor examined Stein on the sideline and told him he might have a concussion. As was the custom at the time, he asked if Stein wanted to return to the game; as was the custom, Stein said yes. He had no idea he had a skull fracture until 15 years later, when a sinus infection slipped through the break and morphed into a near-fatal case of spinal meningitis.
Stein knows he could well be blindsided again in another 15 years. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University announced last week that a 10th NFL retiree had been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The degenerative brain disease causes such symptoms as memory impairment, emotional instability and erratic behavior as it grows into full-blown dementia.
A week earlier, CTE also was diagnosed in a former college player who died at age 42, marking the first time the illness has been found in a player who did not go on to a pro career. The disease, which can only be diagnosed postmortem, has been found in all 11 football players whose brains have been examined at BU. Yet the NFL continues to deny, ignore or downplay such studies, even as Stein sees the mounting toll.
"I don't know if anyone gets out unscathed," said Stein, a Gophers All-America who won a Super Bowl with the Chiefs in 1969. "There is a trail of broken bodies littering the landscape of the NFL, and it's the guys who built the league. And the league is ducking its head in the sand. It should take some accountability and responsibility, but so far, the answer is no."
In recent weeks, though, the NFL has faced growing pressure to own up to the game's dangers and implement reforms. A "60 Minutes" report last month showed images of the brain of former Viking Wally Hilgenberg, who died last year of Lou Gehrig's disease. The slides revealed blotches caused by the buildup of tau, a toxic protein which indicates brain trauma.
PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" illustrated the issue last week through a visit with Hall of Famer John Mackey, who suffers from advanced dementia at age 68. An article in the Oct. 19 New Yorker magazine explained how the damage builds, even through hits of lesser force, and the culture that leads players to shrug off symptoms despite greater knowledge of the consequences.
The concern has reached as far as Washington, where the House Judiciary Committee held hearings last week to discuss the matter. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did not acknowledge a connection between CTE and head trauma incurred in football, a predictable response given the league's consistent rebuff of all independent research. The NFL even criticized a recent study it commissioned, which indicated that former players 50 and older suffer from dementia and related illnesses at a much higher rate than the general population.
The increased public awareness isn't likely to affect the bottom line of America's most popular sport, which pulled in $7 billion in revenues last year. But it should make us ponder the human cost. After years of seeing the devastation wrought on his NFL brethren, Stein filed a federal class-action lawsuit last August on behalf of fellow league retirees, seeking a share of the revenues the NFL makes from using the images of those former players to promote itself.
The league, he said, owes at least that much to the men who sacrificed their health to the game. It could fully repay the debt by acknowledging the true price the sport exacted from them.
"Wally Hilgenberg told me that in one game, he had a collision and lost sight in one eye, and he continued playing," Stein said. "I don't remember a player ever missing a game because of a concussion. Now we're learning what the residual effects are."