CTE: Entertainment at Any Cost

There is a docu-series on Netflix on former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, who was arrested and charged for murder in 2013. In 2015, Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2017, he was found dead in his cell after having committed suicide. He was 27 years old at the time of his death.

The life of Aaron Hernandez is certainly interesting enough to look into, in and of itself, but the real story doesn’t end at the young man’s death, as he would be posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is speculated to have contributed to the violent and irrational behavior that led to his homicidal crimes.

CTE, being a neurodegenerative disease, is commonly found among individuals who sustain repeated (concussion-level) blows to the head. Hence, it is no surprise that the disease has been in the news for years to explain away the destructive behavioral problems exhibited by athletes who played contact sports known for their high frequency of head trauma.

There are often cited studies that confirm a higher than average CTE diagnoses among such athletes compared to the general population, however, because CTE is only able to be diagnosed through an autopsy (meaning the person in question by default has to already be dead in order to confirm if they had the disease) skeptics argue that the statistics used in these studies are bound to be overinflated since the dead athletes being tested for CTE most likely exhibited the behavioral issues indicative of the disease to begin with. An unbiased diagnosis rate would require a large and diverse sample pool of athletes who play concussion-prone contact sports, who would need to be tested posthumously for CTE, and the results would then need to be compared to the rates of CTE diagnoses to the rest of the population that didn’t partake in such sports (which would also require a large and diverse sample pool of test subjects to avoid skewing the data through selection bias).

Obviously, this is an issue that will not reach a satisfying conclusion any time soon on the science alone, if ever, for the very cumbersome reasons of testing for the disease outlined above. But how much data would even be sufficient to convince us that some percentage of these athletes are at risk of suffering unalterable brain damage before we are willing to draw any ethical considerations on the subject? Moreover, what percentage is considered an acceptable sacrifice in this situation? 50%? 25%? What if it’s definitely proven that only 5-10% of athletes who engage in these sports are going to sustain brain damage that will lead them to possibly hurt others and/or hurt themselves? Is that an acceptable number for us to accept as just part of an athlete’s life and experience?

I wasn’t personally raised in a household that cared a whole lot about sports, but I do still understand how all of us can get very attached to our preferred pastime, and get quite protective of it. And it’s not just about enjoying a game; it’s about the thrill of the competition, and the camaraderie between likeminded fans coming together to cheer for their team (at times with nothing in common except for maybe their mutual dislike of the opposing team). Sports to a lot of people aren’t just games, but a form of community, and arguably even a shared worldview. And to be told that something that brings you joy in life is inherently harmful to the very group of people you’re idolizing (i.e. the athletes) can be enough to put anyone on the defensive as it’s all to easy to interpret such arguments as a personal indictment against ones very character.

Although I didn’t watch much conventional sports growing up, my home TV was often set to the bi-weekly professional wrestling shows from the 90s to the mid 2000s. I watched pro wrestling from a young age (possibly too young), and was enamored by the characters, storylines, theatrics, and yes, the violence of it all. If I’m being honest, I also did eventually grow bored of it year to year as the storylines got repetitive, and I became desensitized to the spectacle of watching people genuinely put their bodies through hell in scripted fights for my entertainment. But I continued to tune in despite my waning interest, because it was a point of shared interest with my family and friends that I did not want to let go of. And I didn’t, until mid-2007.

If you’re a wrestling fan, you probably already guessed what I’m about to reference. In June 2007, WWE wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his son and wife, before committing suicide in his Atlanta home. It was an event that shook the pro wrestling community, and left many people bewildered as to what could have compelled a man who so many fans admired as a decent guy to do something so heinous.

We may never know what exactly motivated Benoit to do the horrible things he did that day, but a leading theory of the underlying cause is CTE, as confirmed by an autopsy which revealed the wrestler’s brain to be severely damaged and resembling an Alzheimer’s patient, caused by years of repeated head trauma and concussions. The findings sparked a new debate among wrestling fans, where they asked if it was right to hold the man fully responsible for his actions, or if his state of mind was such that he had no control over his actions. Meanwhile, a different sort of debate crept up in my own mind: Am I partly responsible for this?    

After all, I cheered every head blow, steel chair collision, punch, kick, and fall for years and years right along with everybody else. It was done for my enjoyment, and I never once questioned the ethics of it. These are adults, after all. They know the risk they’re getting into. I neither created this sport, nor controlled how it’s managed and presented. What they chose to do is beyond me, and if I stopped watching, it would still exist, completely indifferent and independent of me. All of this was and is true, yet it still didn’t feel right anymore. I simply couldn’t watch another match without feeling uncomfortable about the possible damage I was passively encouraging through my viewership.

My family and friends still watched, and I never tried to argue them out of it (nor anybody else). I didn’t go into detail about why I stopped watching, choosing to simply say I was bored with it (which was true enough) and not participating in the conversation if the topic came up. Everyone accepted it wasn’t my thing anymore readily, and things moved on without issue.

The feeling of discomfort never left though. There are even residual traces of defensiveness still lurking, ready to stand up for my past viewing habits, so I’m not being flippant when I say I understand the reflexive agitation football fans, soccer fans, boxing fans, etc. etc. etc., are feeling nowadays from the scrutiny aimed at their favorite sports, and the implied judgment accompanying screeds about the physical, measurable harm done for their entertainment value.

Just as I had no intention of talking anybody out of watching pro wrestling 14 years ago, I have no intention of arguing for sports fans of any sort to give up their preferred pastime. I don’t believe attempting such a thing to even me possible, honestly. And I also don’t believe that a legal ban on specific sports is the productive way to go about mitigating the perceived harm being committed here, either. The only question I ask of anyone is to consider what the value of your entertainment experience is, and if this cost happens to be laced with bodily trauma, and pain, and agony, and tragedy for the athletes that make said entertainment possible, is it a cost that’s worth paying?

My answer is no, but your mileage may vary.  

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