Have We Always Known?

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When I read the latest news about professional football and chronic brain injuries, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my father, probably going on forty years ago. This was in the late 1970s, when I was very young. My father was a scientist but a marine botanist – so not expertise that had any immediate relevance to these questions. In any case, he didn’t suggest that what he told me was based on anything more than experience, watching.

But what he told me was this: that if you paid attention, pro football players tended not to live that long. I don’t remember precisely how he phrased it but he talked about them seeming to die a lot in their 50s and early 60s. If my memory serves, the conversation wasn’t even about head injuries. I think he was more focused just on repeated body trauma, cumulative major organ damage. And he based it just on watching the big players he’d probably watched in the 50s and 60s and how long they ended up living.

There’s not much more than that. I make no claim that this is true. But it’s one out of that relatively small number of conversations with my pop that has stuck with me for decades. Then and now it sounds right to me – both logically but also in terms of just that general sense of how old pro ball players seem to be when they die. Both of those kinds of reasoning play tricks on us. It’s why we have qualified people who do studies with real data – information which has of course been trickling into a rush in recent years about brain diseases.

I say this all simply to ask, have we all really known this all along?

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