Friday, January 29, 2016

The toll, Part Whatever

So here again is the dark side, intruding on our national obsession at the most inopportune time possible. We are in the run-up to Super Bowl 50, the biggest event in half-a-century in the biggest entertainment vehicle in America, and yet its awful price stubbornly lurks.

Say hello to Tyler Sash.

Say hello, but don't expect an answer, because he's dead. Been dead since September, when he mixed a couple of powerful pain meds, triggering an accidental overdose that killed him. That was the given cause of death.

The unspoken cause is he was yet another young man who loved football too much.

You probably never heard of Sash, because there's no reason you should. He was a safety who played parts of only two NFL seasons, although he won a Super Bowl ring with the Giants in one of them. He played three years at Iowa prior to that, winning All-Big Ten honors his last year. Prior to that, presumably, he was a hard-hitting, head-knocking tough guy on a lot of high school Friday nights.

Now he's dead. And, once again, the doctors who look for such things have found evidence in his brain of CTE, which has been linked to repeated brain trauma leading to, among other things, early onset dementia. Doctors found levels of it in Sash's brain comparable to those they found in the brain of Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012.

The thing is, Seau was 43. Sash was only 27.

Only 27, and yet, the pattern was a familiar one: Memory lapses, difficulty focusing, unable to hold down a job because of that after the Giants cut him loose in 2013. On various medications for almost constant pain. His family growing increasingly aware that he wasn't the same person anymore. Down the rabbit hole we go again.

Look. I don't know what the NFL can do about this. I don't know what anyone can do. Players are bigger and faster and stronger than they've ever been, generating terrifying amounts of force. They are going to keep getting bigger and faster and stronger. And professional football is such an immense cultural and commercial thing in this country that no amount of bumbling by its circus-act commissioner, nor any amount of witless denial that 27-year-olds dying with the brains of old men is a problem, seems to affect its popularity.

And so the party will go on next week. Super Bowl 50 will be the grandest celebration of professional football we have ever seen. No one will mention Tyler Sash. No one will talk about the terrible toll being exacted to keep us entertained. Everything will be glitter and light, so much light the darkness will be sent fleeing.

But it will still be there.

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