Former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler has been added to the growing list of NFL players afflicted by the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Ben Margot AP file photo
Former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler has been added to the growing list of NFL players afflicted by the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Ben Margot AP file photo

Marcos Bretón

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Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Today’s gladiators pay cruel price for our amusement

By Marcos Breton

mbreton@sacbee.com

February 06, 2016 04:01 PM

With each passing year, my enjoyment of the Super Bowl requires a little more denial than the year before.

As long as I don’t focus too closely on the truth – that the players in Sunday’s game stand a good chance of suffering brain damage or other physical harm that could haunt their lives – then the day should be a blast.

I’m planning to try a new recipe for short ribs, which should go perfectly with Sacramento-brewed craft beer. Dear friends will be over and we’ll talk and laugh as the game plays. It’s going to be as fun as it is every year, even though I don’t care who wins and couldn’t name most of the players on the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos.

I haven’t missed a Super Bowl since my first in 1971, when I was 8 and became hooked on the visual opiate the NFL has created. The players are the gladiators of this spectacle. We care about them for the 60 minutes of action they provide, in between the overhyped commercials and the pyrotechnics of the halftime show.

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Otherwise, we don’t care about the mounting evidence that football players pay a heavy price for our entertainment.

This year’s Super Bowl comes on the heels of a much-hyped Hollywood film, starring no less a talent than Will Smith, about an underdog doctor who exposes the epidemic of debilitating concussions among past and present football players.

That doctor, Nigerian-born Bennet Omalu, currently serves as chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County. He was and is a righteous man. The NFL tried to dismiss his findings and he fought back in the name of the players who sacrifice their bodies and minds for the sport.

It’s too bad the good doctor didn’t even get his 15 minutes of fame. “Concussion” bombed at the box office. It made a meager $11 million despite opening during the coveted Christmas weekend, a disaster for a film that cost $35 million to make.

Here’s another dispiriting number. PBS’ “Frontline” reported this fall that researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University now have identified the degenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 96 percent of NFL players they’ve examined.

CTE is triggered by repetitive brain trauma caused by the countless blows, big and small, that football players endure every game day. With CTE, brain tissue literally deteriorates. An abnormal protein call tau accumulates on the brain like plaque on a tooth. Tau is supposed to stabilize the cellular structure of the brain’s neurons. But when it accumulates, it can interfere with the neurons’ function. Symptoms include memory loss, erratic behavior, impaired judgment, depression, aggression and dementia.

Ken Stabler, the 1970s Raiders quarterback – and my favorite player – had advanced CTE when he died of colon cancer last year at age 69. A swashbuckling character in his heyday, he was reduced to a broken, pitiable man before death, his family said.

Tyler Sash, a 27-year-old New York Giants safety, died of an accidental overdose last year. His brain was donated to Boston University, where scientists confirmed he had advanced CTE.

Sash’s mother and brother went on ESPN to tell the story of a young man who followed the rules and loved to please as a youth. But he became erratic and unpredictable in his final years. Sash had been arrested for public drunkenness after leading police in his Iowa hometown on a four-block chase. Sash’s family had been angry with him. They had disapproved of his life. Then they plunged into despair when he overdosed on painkillers. They felt guilty when they found that Sash had CTE after playing football all his life.

“After they explained what kind of damage (CTE) does to the brain, I had a deep sadness,” Barney Sash, mother of Tyler Sash, said on ESPN. “He suffered his last couple of years and we couldn’t put our finger on what was wrong. The sadness is that he was kind of alone in this. He couldn’t explain it. He displayed characteristics that were never in him.”

Omalu has said he is willing to bet his medical license that O.J. Simpson has CTE, a provocative statement that has barely caused a ripple as the Super Bowl has approached.

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Stabler’s name primarily has been mentioned this past week as sportswriters consider his candidacy for the NFL Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, the legends of my youth now look prematurely frail and they’ve dropped their tough-guy personas as their bodies have fallen apart.

Around Northern California, no player inspired more adulation from people of my generation than Joe Montana, the mythical quarterback who led the Niners to four Super Bowl titles in the 1980s. The sight of Montana takes many of us back to those years, when No. 16 raised his game when the stakes were the highest.

Today, the sight of him grows more poignant each year. In an interview with USA Today last week, Montana was candid about the physical toll he has endured since his career ended. The world class athlete can’t physically keep up with his family anymore.

“I love basketball,” Montana said. “I can’t play basketball. I can shoot, but that’s about it. I can’t run up and down the court. My knee just gives out. I tried a little bit of skiing, but unfortunately when you get weight on one ski under my left knee, it’s just not very strong. After my first back surgery, what kind of compounds things is, my sciatic nerve has been damaged. So the muscles along my sciatic nerve into my left foot have been numb since ’86.”

Just days ago, ESPN featured a documentary about the 1985 Chicago Bears, considered by many to be the best team ever. I’m 53 and these players are not much older than that, but some are broken men now. Jim McMahon, the former Bears quarterback, suffers from the broken neck he sustained during his career – and from the repeated blows to the head he received. He spends his days assembling puzzles in an effort to keep his brain alert. He lives in constant, debilitating pain.

Despite this, many of his Bears teammates say they would repeat their careers in a heartbeat – just so they could experience the thrill of competition.

Some have wondered why the NFL has been so immune to a backlash from fans repulsed by the cruel aftermath the sport can inflict on its athletes. History may provide part of that answer. It’s not a new phenomenon for the wealthy and the humble to share in extravaganzas of violence. During Roman times, gladiators fought to the death for the enjoyment of audiences.

“Hardly any contemporary voices questioned the morality of staging gladiatorial combat,” the BBC wrote in an article about the Roman era. “Today, the idea of gladiators fighting to the death, and of an amphitheater where this could take place watched by an enthusiastic audience, epitomizes the depths to which the Roman Empire was capable of sinking. Yet, to the Romans themselves, the institution of the arena was one of the defining features of their civilization.”

Isn’t the Super Bowl a defining feature of our civilization? It’s the biggest television show of the year. It’s where commerce, pop culture, gambling and pro sports intersect. The effects of the violence of the NFL are undeniable, but as in Roman times, the public is largely unmoved. NFL players aren’t slaves as many gladiators were, but many are broken physically or financially when their playing days are over. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that one in six NFL players filed for bankruptcy after retirement.

Omalu has said publicly that he won’t be watching the Carolina Panthers face the Denver Broncos, but millions of others will. Many want to see Cam Newton – the Panthers quarterback – get his comeuppance. An African American, Newton is reviled for touchdown celebrations and is seen as arrogant by some in the football public who barely hide their bigotry.

Meanwhile, Peyton Manning, the Broncos quarterback, is white and beloved after a long career, despite recent suggestions that he has used performance enhancing drugs (an allegation he has vehemently denied).

The spectacle of the Super Bowl reveals both glory and weakness in us, the fans. It’s likely that future civilizations will look upon the event with the same revulsion with which we now see the darker aspects of Roman culture.

But until then, pass the food.