Whether tuning in for the commercials, the game, or just for an excuse to eat snacks, millions of Americans will watch Super Bowl 58 on Feb. 11.
Though they are paid well to play what amounts to a children’s game, NFL players put their bodies on the line for our entertainment, and sometimes their lives are endangered too thanks to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is known as CTE and what the Mayo Clinic describes as “a brain disorder likely caused by repeated head injuries. It causes the death of nerve cells in the brain, known as degeneration.”
According to a report of an autopsy study from the Boston University CTE Center, as covered by Doug Most writing for The Brink, “the CTE Center has diagnosed 345 former NFL players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, out of 376 former players who were studied, a rate of 91.7 percent.”
Of course, NFL players aren’t the only people at risk of developing CTE. Scientists determined that Australian football player Heather Anderson had CTE following her death by suicide in 2022, making her the first female athlete to die because of the disease. Also, young athletes are at risk, according to reporting by The New York Times and research by the National Institutes of Health.
The degenerative disease develops through the collective force of blows to the head, so even one concussion could put a player down a dangerous path. Playing any contact sport puts a person at risk, leading some parents to rethink letting their children participate.
As the Cleveland Clinic explained, symptoms of CTE can include issues with memory and concentration, behavior changes, depression, self-harming thoughts and behaviors, and more. Though playing is a personal decision and I’m not taking a stance on whether anyone should pursue such activities or not, people should consider the risks before participating in sports like football, boxing, soccer, and others.
This is especially true when one considers how intelligent some athletes are, especially NFL players.
A while back I listened to a 2017 episode of the “Freakonomics” podcast that interviewed John Urschel. At the time, Urschel was a Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman. He made headlines when he, according to ESPN, “abruptly announced his retirement from football at the age of 26” two days after the results of a CTE study were released.
At the time, he was a doctoral candidate in applied mathematics at MIT. He’s since earned his doctoral degree and is now an assistant professor in the MIT Math department.
Since I first learned about Urschel, I’ve been impressed with him. He was able to pursue his Ph.D. at a prestigious institution while playing in the NFL, and he walked away from a lucrative career because he saw the danger in it.
This made me wonder if other NFL players with notable educational backgrounds or advanced degrees played football despite the potential harm.
That sent me down a path of inquiry, and I found several players who destroyed the stereotype of being a dumb jock.
For example, I knew Richard Sherman was smart. The former cornerback graduated from Standford, and he is a powerful communicator. However, I didn’t know that several NFL players went on to become lawyers, such as Oliver Luck and Ron Mix.
Also, former quarterback Archie Roberts became a cardiovascular surgeon, and Myron Rolle attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar before becoming a doctor.
There are many other NFL players and sports professionals with advanced degrees, though. Most are doctors, lawyers, dentists, or academics with doctoral degrees. It’s truly impressive, and it changes my perceptions of professional athletes.
One NFL player and his achievements caught me by surprise, though. That was Byron White.
I recognized the name from teaching media law classes. After all, he was a United States Supreme Court Justice who wrote majority opinions to desegregate public schools, such as U.S. v. Fordice in 1992, and to uphold affirmative action policies, as in Fullilove v. Klutznick in 1980. Additionally, White is known for dissenting from the majority in Miranda v. Arizona and Roe v. Wade.
Before sitting on the nation’s highest court, though, White played professional football. In his rookie season of 1938, he led the league in rushing yards, and while pursuing his undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado, he was an All-American halfback who was the runner-up for the 1937 Heisman Trophy.
It’s no wonder Sports Illustrated referred to him as “the greatest athlete of his time.”
White was also a Rhodes Scholarship at the University of Oxford, and he served as a U.S. Navy intelligence officer in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. He earned his law degree from Yale Law School before being nominated to the Supreme Court by President John F. Kennedy.
Clearly, White and the others are more than just jocks. They are amazing and inspirational people.
So while you enjoy the gridiron battle, think about the players slamming into each other. They might be impressive physical specimens, but there might be a lot going on under the helmets too. Hopefully, they will protect that valuable resource and avoid the ravages of CTE.
Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is a native of Canton, a resident of McPherson County, and an assistant professor of media at Sterling College. He can be contacted with questions or comments via his website at www.toddvogts.com.