I used to have this relative who I loved. I will refer to him as Jack for reasons that will be obvious very quickly and out of respect for his immediate family.
I had the opportunity to spend quality time on multiple occasions with this relative. As I spent time with him and others who knew him, I heard lots of stories about him. The one story that was told the most was when my relative suffered a concussion during a high school football game.
The story was often told by others and included humor -- you know, the kind of concussion humor that always includes loss of memory and an inability to answer basic questions. The usual things that were funny about concussions until we started to learn what concussions actually do to people.
Just a few years ago, this relative of mine killed himself. It was a massive shock to my wife and me. But when we went to be with family and attend the funeral, we heard the stories. Stories of mental confusion and prior concerns over suicide. And then the story of how he actually went through with it at the end.
I don't know if my relative's death was connected in any way to his high school concussion 40 years prior. But the thought was in my mind the entire time I listened to The Beautiful Brain, a 4-hour Audible Original audio documentary.
The Beautiful Brain is fascinating listening for any enlightened soccer fan. The documentary is presented in 4 parts. The first features the story of Jeff Astle, a legendary player for West Brom back in the 1960s. He was a goal-scoring center forward whose biggest goal came in the 1968 FA Cup final. He scored the lone goal to give the Baggies the trophy.
The documentary went through Astle's career highlights, but it focused on his life after his career was over. That's because Jeff Astle's quality of life quickly deterioriated, and in 2002, he died. The coroner ruled that his death was caused by football.
The second part of the documentary discussed CTE, a disease that is gaining notoriety, especially in sports circles. CTE is the disease of the brain caused by repeated blows to the head. It can only be diagnosed when someone's brain is examined after his or her death, but it has been, and is being, directly linked to the trauma that athletes experience while participating in sports. Trauma that is both concussive (when someone is clearly suffering from concussion symptoms) and subconcussive (when someone is taking blows to the head without obvious and immediate effect).
Executives, players, and fans of the NFL are waking up to CTE, thanks in part to the movie Concussion starring Will Smith, released a couple of years ago. The doctor that Smith portrays in that film, Bennet Omalu, provides much of the content aired in part 2 of The Beautiful Brain.
The drama of The Beautiful Brain takes full effect when Astle's CTE is discussed. His cause of death was the sport that he played -- the sport that I love to watch. The way that the sport killed him was in the simple act of heading a soccer ball over and over again throughout his professional career.
Let that sink in for a moment. As I listened to Part 2, I could not shake the feeling that soccer is in trouble. People have already been talking about the trouble facing the NFL over the obvious and inherent dangers its players face, but you don't hear it much about soccer. Sure, we need better injury protocols in general and concussion protocols in particular, but what I am saying to you now is that there is scientific evidence that a fundamental part of the sport is killing its players. If you allow players to head a soccer ball, you are exposing them to CTE.
Part 3 of the documentary took a detour from soccer and Jeff Astle. It discussed female brains and the way that they are exposed to CTE. The narcissistic part of me wondered at first if the soccer angle in the beginning of the documentary was just a ploy to insert this part. If so, now that I've listened to it, I'm not upset about it. This was, in many ways, the most fascinating and disturbing of the four parts.
Sadly, CTE is prominent in two different categories of females: athletes and the battered. Domestic violence is causing CTE in women at alarming rates. It makes sense, but it also increases the urgency we face in addressing these issues.
Even more sadly, CTE research has largely neglected women. Most of the brains that are studied belong to males. This part of the documentary successfully raised awareness for the need for increased research and attention on CTE in women.
The documentary closes in the fourth part with a return to Jeff Astle's surviving family. The FA and PFA promised to study CTE in football more than 15 years ago. They promised to deliver that study 5 years ago. The study was never done. Soccer executives, much like NFL executives, are struggling to know how to handle this new problem, and it seems like they are hoping that it will just go away. It won't, and it shouldn't.
Toward the end of Part 4, there is audio of a play that was written about Jeff Astle's life. One unique aspect of the play is that it requires audience participation. West Brom fans had a song that they sang about Jeff Astle during his Baggies matches. The audience is asked to sing it at appropriate times before and during the play. There was also audio in the documentary about how, on one particular night, the audience spontaneously began singing the song again after the play had ended. It moved them that much.
In case you couldn't tell, I loved this documentary. Jeff Astle is a prominent example of the dangers of CTE found in soccer. May his death not be in vain.
If I have one criticism of The Beautiful Brain, it's that it could probably be a little shorter. A little more editing on some of the interview clips would have given it a tigher and more dramatic feel, particularly in Parts 1 and 2. But this is a very minor complaint. This documentary should be heard; every soccer fan needs to face whether or not his or her time and money should continue to be dedicated to the beautiful game.
I don't play much soccer these days; I mostly watch it. But I remember playing it. I remember heading a soccer ball. Sometimes, I would barely feel a thing. Other times, I'd be left with a dull headache for a few minutes.
Even before watching this documentary, I often watch and wonder at some of the headers that I see. Guys are heading the ball 25 yards upfield. Or heading a heavy free kick in on goal. I wonder if those guys feel the same thing I used to feel. Surely they must, right?
And that's not even counting the really dangerous shots. Like when Martin Dubravka knocked Mo Salah's head around late in the recently concluded Premier League season. Or when Jan Vertonghen collided with his own teammate and suffered a "nose injury" (air quotes inserted) during the most recent Champions League semifinals. Or on any goal kick that includes the throwing of elbows at an opponent's head. These are obviously dangerous plays that are either concussive or subconcussive.
We look back on history and think we have progressed beyond those who lived before us. During the days of the Roman Colisseum, people watched in the stands as participants were literally killed in front of them for sport. We judge those people for doing that, thinking that we would never stoop back down to that level.
And yet, according to the story Jeff Astle's death tells us, that's exactly what we do. We crowd together into stadiums, cheering and singing as players are literally dying in front of us.
Oh, sure, they don't actually die on the pitch. We get to consider ourselves better than our historical peers because our athletes don't die right away. It happens much more slowly and on the inside. The brain is turning to mush over the repeated impact, and we get to claim ignorance.
Some of you listening to this are criticizing me right now. You think I'm soft. Maybe you think that this is just another American who is trying to step in where he doesn't belong and speak to the English game (by the way, the narrator of The Beautiful Brain is British and currently lives in London, but I digress). Maybe you even discredit the science and think this is no big deal.
Maybe that's true. And honestly, if you ask me what my solution is to this problem, the answer is that I don't know. I don't know what should be done. Do you remove the heading of a soccer ball from the game? Should the sport be fundamentally changed that much?
Maybe. I don't know. An argument could be made that it should be left up to the players. And I would agree with that. For current players. As the science continues to come in, players should review it and decide if they want to keep playing a sport that is potentially killing them.
NFL players have been doing that now for a few years. Randomly, stories will come in about players retiring, seemingly out of nowhere. One even retired in the middle of a game. It was weird -- he bailed on his teammates, but if he decided the risk wasn't worth his life anymore, he is entitled to make that decision.
But what about the kids? I would understand if kids and parents decide to take the risk that a collision or a random elbow or a punch from a goalkeeper might happen and let the kids play anyway.
But what about heading a football? I keep coming back to that thought. What about this act that is fundamental to the game -- unavoidable for anyone who wants to play to the highest possible levels? What about that?
What about Harvey Elliot of Fulham who, at 16 years and 30 days, became the youngest player to feature in the Premier League? How many headers has he made in his life, whether in practices or games? Or Dwight McNeil of Burnley? Or Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool? Or Phil Foden of Manchester City? Or Marcus Rashford of Manchester United?
I'll go one step further. Society considers a person to be an adult when he or she turns 18. The most recent neurological research, however, says that a person's brain is not fully formed until the age of 23. Ruben Loftus-Cheek is 23. Should Ruben only now be allowed to head the ball? How would the Premier League work if only some players are allowed to head the ball?
It's time to make some hard decisions. We can't pretend to be ignorant anymore. CTE is real. The effect that our sports -- in this case, football -- is having on our athletes' brains cannot be ignored. I mean, we could. These athletes are just figures on a field or a screen to us. But what if it was your relative? I already told you about a relative of mine. Folks, this problem is real.
If you watched Jan Vertonghen wretching and staggering on the touchline during the Champions League semis, you saw the very real nature of a concussion. I believe that we glimpsed Vertonghen's future in those moments. Hopefully, I'm wrong. The science says I'm probably not.
The Premier League, in comparison with most other European leagues, is particularly physical. That can be a good thing. There is a form of physical play that is safe and exciting.
We have to get away from crunching tackles. We have to get away from players using elbows when jumping up in the air. We have to eliminate this idea that goalkeepers can go toward a ball and use whatever physicality they want, which can sometimes include punches to a player's head. It's stupid.
And I'll keep saying it's stupid until change is made. That's my solution for now. Yes, I still love the Premier League and playing Fantasy Premier League, so I am going to keep sitting in the stands with the rest of the cheering crowds. But I have a podcast that gives me a voice. And with that voice, I will keep firing away at the executives who refuse to change the rules to protect players' heads.
I will continue to speak up about the need for injury protocols, concussion protocols, and rule changes to remove dangerous play. I will be open-minded if the subject of removing headers from football is discussed in the interest of player safety. I will support and not ridicule those who decide to do what might seem radical now so that we save the lives of our players later.
The Beautiful Brain is a beautiful documentary. I'm glad I listened to it -- because it has given me the courage to continue fighting for this beautiful cause.