Overnight, ESPN filed a story by Peter Keating that revealed that Chris Henry, before his tragic death last December, had endured brain damage before his death. It will always be painful to revisit this story, and this discovery may make the news harder to swallow for those that became fans of Chris Henry the person, myself included.
Henry's mother, Carolyn Henry Glaspy, gave West Virginia University affiliated Brain Injury Research Institute (BIRI) permission to conduct a detailed study of her son's brain. The researchers discovered that Henry "had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) -- a form of degenerative brain damage caused by multiple hits to the head -- at the time of his death."
Henry joins over 50 former athletes, many of them former football players, who were suffering from CTE at their time of death.
Researchers have now discovered CTE in the brains of more than 50 deceased former athletes, including more than a dozen NFL and college players, pro wrestler Chris Benoit and NHL player Reggie Fleming.
Repeated blows to the head are the only known cause of CTE, researchers say. Concussive hits can trigger a buildup of toxic tau protein within the brain, which in turn can create damaging tangles and threads in the neural fibers that connect brain tissue. Victims can lose control of their impulses, suffer depression and memory loss, and ultimately develop dementia.
CTE is only detectable in autopsy cell-staining techniques that reveal the presence and effects of "dangerous tau proteins and telltale tangles that characterize [it]".
Since CTE cannot be detected while athletes are alive, and scientists know that the only cause is repeated head trauma, the question of concussion safety is again brought to the forefront. Ben Roethlisberger underwent an array of psychological tests as part of his punishment for allegedly raping a 20-year-old in Georgia. One of the issues risen by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was that concussions may have contributed to Roethlisberger's deviant behavior. Forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht told the paper in an interview:
"The question I pose is simple: Can someone with several chronic or repetitive head injuries later display behavior that is socially undesirable? It's certainly possible, but we won't know that unless there is a proper evaluation, then work-up and treatment plan. It would be medically negligent not to include these sorts of tests as a part of this disciplinary process."
Researchers at BIRI make it sound more certain than Wecht, saying that deviancy is to be expected from individuals suffering the effects of CTE. Julian Bailes, the director of BIRI commented:
"This syndrome is expressed not only as changes in the brain, but clinically, as behavioral changes. And starting with Mike Webster, we have seen common threads in these cases: emotional disturbances, depression, failed personal relationships and businesses, suicidal thoughts, sometimes alcohol or drug use."
We saw many of these problems with Chris Henry and others were assumed, perhaps correctly, by fans and media alike. We see this sort of behavior frequently in professional athletes. Where can we as fans, as citizens draw the line between brain damage and bad people? Chris Henry managed to overcome this trauma and was by all accounts turning his life around until he reportedly threatened to kill himself moments before he jumped or fell from a moving automobile. Ben Roethlisberger and I'm sure countless other football and hockey players, boxers and MMA fighters are going through or will go through the same battle, or might snap.
The lesson is not necessarily entirely clear and will not be universally approved of. For me, it's obvious. Concussions are not being dealt with properly across professional sports and probably society as a whole. Parents and professional organizations need to be more vigilant when it comes to brain health. When a person starts showing signs of CTE, as Chris Henry did unknown to his friends and family, and as Ben Roethlisberger apparently is now, it is time to call it a career.
As the consequences of brain trauma become more obvious, the current attitude toward brain injury needs to change immediately. Tragedies like those that struck Chris Henry, Tom McHale, Justin Strzelczyk, and Chris Benoit should be avoided at all costs. If that means cutting a career short, so be it - it's only a game.