Ken Stabler passed away from colon cancer last July 8th, a cause which has nothing whatsoever to do with head injuries. However, Stabler and his family had noticed in the last decade of his life that his cognitive abilities were beginning to diminish and his tolerance for stimuli such as light and noise was fading away into near constant irritation.
Therefore, Stabler insisted that upon his death his brain and spinal cord be donated for research into whatever it was that was causing these symptoms. Today the Stabler family announced the results of the examination of Stabler's brain, and the news is terrible. (Note: That link goes to a New York Times article I strongly recommend you read)
The Raiders great suffered from Stage 3 Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, better known as CTE. The disease has a scale of 1 to 4, but "3" is considered severe. It caused Stabler to deteriorate rapidly in his mental focus, as evidenced by the fact that he would tell the same stories over and over within a span of minutes and he would stop at green lights while driving; he also became unable to listen to the radio on car rides and would not have the television at a high volume.
Even sadder than the disease's culmination is that Stabler absolutely saw it coming. On the days he was lucid, he discussed with his family the strange things he was experiencing, and was insistent that after his death they do what they could to discover its cause.
What was found is no surprise to many football fans, and Stabler joins a laundry list of former players who suffered from CTE including Hall of Famers Junior Seau and Frank Gifford. Stabler's brain was found to have widespread lesions affecting many different sections of his brain resulting from repeated traumatic blows to the head, classic signs of CTE.
This issue was recently tackled in the Will Smith movie Concussion. Dr. Bennett Omalu, who discovered CTE and was profiled in the movie, told ABC News this week that he is almost certain that former Buffalo Bills star O.J. Simpson suffers from CTE and that this most likely influences his behavior. Given the ridiculous amount of carries Simpson had over his long career, this seems like a plausible conclusion.
The question for someone like Simpson is, can CTE be used as a viable criminal defense? Simpson, who in 1995 was acquitted of double murder but then in 2007 was convicted of stealing his own property, has seemingly had a history of very odd behavior in the last 20 years. Could CTE be responsible for this?
It's likely that CTE is a major factor, but it's also unlikely that CTE can be used as a defense in trial because currently the only way to determine if someone is suffering from the disease is to examine their brain after they are dead. Until we can test for CTE upon a live person, it will remain elusive.
This problem is only going to get worse as time goes on. Back in the 1970s, 300-pound players were almost unheard of, and nobody of that size could run a sub-5 second 40-yard dash. Today we have physical freaks well in excess of 300 who can run that fast and hit each other with forces rivaling two bighorn sheep charging and butting heads.
In addition to this, we have a much more pass-happy league today, meaning quarterbacks drop back more often and thus get hit more often. There is also the positional designation Edge Rusher, who by definition have one of their main job descriptions to hit the opposing quarterback as hard and as often as they possibly can.
While the league has certainly put rules in place to protect the quarterback and reduce head shots, ask any NFL referee and they will tell you that an NFL quarterback gets hit just as much, if not more, than anyone else. Each game we see a tally of "QB Sacks" and "Knockdowns" which is usually meant to show how effective the defensive front seven play is, but we never really consider the long-term effect of this on a quarterback.
Someone like our own QB Derek Carr's brother David, who got slaughtered over his short tenure with the Texans, is an extreme example of what happens when this goes terribly wrong. We know his career was cut short in large part due to protection issues, but what will his long-term outlook be? We won't know for a very long time, but hopefully for his sake he got out of the game before any serious repercussions took hold.
It's worth noticing that former 49ers LB Chris Borland retired over this very issue right as he became a star (leaving untold millions on the table), and former Saints offensive lineman Kyle Turley expressed the same sentiments after leaving the NFL, although he had a reasonably long career for an offensive tackle. In an interview I saw with ESPN, Turley noted that he experienced memory loss and would rage for no reason and that some of those symptoms continued following his retirement.
How liable is the NFL for this problem? These players have all been playing football since at least high school, and played college football totally independent of the NFL. Is the NFL now responsible for the entire sport? How can someone say that Stabler's CTE didn't result at least in part from his days at Alabama? Is Alabama responsible? The SEC? The NCAA? Where does the buck stop?
Perhaps even more importantly, now that CTE cases often result in massive payouts to families of former players well after medical insurance has paid out large amounts in medical bills, how long until insurance premiums get totally out of hand? Will it soon become impossible to insure football players? The next time a former NFL player breaks the law in some unusual or violent manner, will he attempt to use CTE as a get-out-of-jail-free card? Is it, in fact, a valid excuse?
Today we have answers about what contributed to the slow and gradual decline of Ken Stabler, just like we had answers about Frank Gifford and myriad others before him. However, those answers only invite more tough questions that the league and its fans will have to face.