Michael Powell, New York Times - Brain Damage in College Football

Michael Powell, New York Times
Brain Damage in College Football


I wasn’t much of a football player.  My only real skill was catching passes, but I was so slow afoot, I didn’t get open often enough for my quarterback to look for me much.  I stopped playing after junior high school.

Lucky me.  I quit before hits got hard and dangerous.

It’s easy to hurt your hands and feet, arms and legs, and especially your joints, like your knees, playing football.  These injuries can be painful, and recovery can take a while, but by and large it is the head injuries, the concussions, that can ruin, and in the worst cases, take your life.

These disasters are, thank goodness, exceptional.  They usually involve players who have put years into the game, who played in high school, college and the pros, the NFL.  They usually involve players who have had a series of repeated blows to the head, a series of four, five, ten or more concussions.

Among those players, some (exactly how many or exactly what proportion is not known) but more than a few of these former football players pay for these blows to the head with a lifetime of headaches, extreme sensitivity to light and loud sounds, mental and physical disorientation, persistent symptoms of clinical depression.

Among this minority of people who suffered brain injuries playing football, the worst cases commit suicide.

Brain scans of deceased football players done at the Boston University chronic traumatic encephalopathy center found evidence of the degenerative brain disease known as CTE, in 99 percent of brains obtained from former players in the National Football League.  And of brains of just post-college football suicides sent to BU to study, 91 percent showed CTE.

The NFL has long contended that there is no causative link between hits to the head from football and CTE.  But rather than test their denial in court, the league abandoned mediation and settled with a group of players by creating a fund of $765 million to cover claims in behalf of 18,000 former players.

“There is no proven direct link between concussion and C.T.E.”  Miguel Rueda, the University of Colorado’s associate athletic director, told our guest today, New York Times sports columnist Michael Powell. Like the NFL, he wants more research to settle the question.  Unlike the NFL, the University of Colorado and the NCAA have shown no interest in providing money to support those brain-injured while playing college football.

Meanwhile, the University of Colorado Buffaloes will start a new season knowing at least half a dozen former Colorado football players – including stars Rashaan Salaam, Drew Wahlroos and Tennyson McCarty – committed suicide after suffering serial concussions.

This year’s team will be playing for a new coach, Mel Tucker, who defined his football philosophy at his introductory news conference in Boulder.   “Our team, we will be physical,” he said. “My dad always told me the name of the game is hit, hit, H-I-T.”



Michael Powell has been a Sports of The Times columnist since 2014. Prior to that, he wrote the Gotham column for the Metro section, was a national economics writer for Business, and covered the Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani presidential campaigns in 2008. He came to The Times in 2007.

Mr. Powell was part of the team that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News for its swift and sweeping coverage of the sex scandal that resulted in the resignation of Governor Eliot Spitzer.

Before joining The Times, Mr. Powell worked for The Washington Post from 1996 to 2006, where he covered the 2000 presidential campaign and later served as New York bureau chief.

He began his career in 1984 at the Burlington Free Press, going on to positions with the Bergen Record, New York Newsday and the New York Observer.








Subscribe to insider notes from Dave Marash along with previews and cartoons of upcoming podcasts. You’ll be richer, taller, and if you don’t eat, thinner.


Here & There is kept afloat by wonderful sponsors and curious listeners like you. Your support is appreciated!