Why It Matters That Tony Dorsett Is Showing Signs Of CTE


I wrote yesterday morning about ESPN’s report that the brains of three living former NFL players showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease that has been found in more than 50 deceased NFL players and has strong links to the repeated head trauma football players face on the field. One of those players was Tony Dorsett, the Hall of Fame running back who is now suffering from memory loss, mood swings, and suicidal thoughts, all common traits of the NFL players who were diagnosed with the disease after their deaths.

I made a point near the end of that piece that finding signs of the disease in a living player like Dorsett is the “type of development that could lead to broad awareness of this disease among fans,” but after thinking about it and discussing it on Twitter, I wanted to expand on why I believe that’s the case with Dorsett more than it was with League of Denial, the documentary that detailed the NFL’s two-decade campaign to discredit and cover up research linking CTE and long-term brain trauma to the game of football.

For right now, at least, NFL fans seem content to keep watching the game without much regard for what it might be doing to the people who play it. League of Denial never really had a chance to make NFL fans care about CTE and football-related brain trauma, and I doubt Dorsett alone does either.

The power Dorsett does have, though, is that he’s probably the most notable name so far to show signs of this disease. Others have been well-known — Hall of Fame offensive lineman Mike Webster was the first case, and doctors found it in future Hall of Famer Junior Seau’s brain too — but Dorsett differs from them in one major way: he’s not just a Hall of Famer who has this disease. He’s a Hall of Famer who found out he had signs of this disease (there’s no concrete diagnosis for the living yet) while he was still alive.

Dorsett is a living, breathing, walking case of what football might do to the brain and the person who played the game. And he’s a star, a household name, the type of player every NFL fan knows even if they never saw him play.

That is significant because it might help us learn how to manage and treat the disease before it consumes a player the way it did Webster and Seau. But it also might help make NFL fans care, and that’s important because for all the changes the NFL has made, it still won’t have an incentive to truly act in the interest of its players or think about the effects of its game until this all starts to hurt its business.

If anything is going to get NFL fans to acknowledge what may be happening in front of them, it will be what happens to the stars of the game once they leave and the chance to watch it happen. Our heroes are falling, and as the tests progress, we might one day soon find out that a current player has this, that he needs to leave the game if he’s going to have any sort of future. We’re still years, potentially, from being able to explain what’s happening to people like Dorsett fully, why the disease develops, how it can be prevented or managed, and how prevalent it is. But the more prominent the face of the disease becomes, the harder CTE — and the potentially damaging effects of football on the brains of its players at every level — will be to ignore. And Dorsett, at least for now, is the most prominent face it has ever had.