Opinion: Brain Injuries Should Be Chief Concern in NFL Football, Not Bad Refs

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My father loved football. I can't remember a weekend of my childhood that the television wasn't on, the sounds of football (complete with my father's play-by-play and color commentary) filling the living room. He enjoyed other sports too – baseball, basketball, track and field, boxing. In fact, my father never met a sport he didn't like. But football was his first love, because football paved his way from poverty, to college, to graduate school.

My father was born dirt poor. When I say “dirt” I mean “dirt.” The floors of his childhood home were literally dirt and nothing more. No shoes. Tattered clothing. One meal a day. He was orphaned at age eight. 

At his segregated high school, in Gary, Indiana, however, he ran like a bullet for the track team and was fast enough that scouts passing by the track one afternoon spotted him and offered him a football scholarship to the University of Indiana. He played running back, tight end and wide receiver; and although he loved the game, he was the consummate student-athlete, staying up all night to study, often falling asleep on his books.

He'd just graduated college when he was drafted for the Korean War. When it was over, he was too old for the NFL, but still good enough to play overseas. So he went to Mexico to suit up for the Aztecas. This also allowed him to pursue a Masters in Fine Arts at the University of the Americas near Mexico City. It put him in contact with Diego Rivera, one of the greatest artist of the day. This is also where my father met my mother.

Football made all of this possible.

But football did something else. It damaged my father's brain. I speak of my father in the past tense not because he is dead. But he is not the man he used to be. Far from it. He cannot speak. Most days he does not recognize me. I cannot watch football with him. Not like I used to. 

This week, when millions of "Monday Night Football" viewers saw the Packers intercept a Hail Mary pass in the end zone, a game-ending play in Seattle that clinched a hard-fought victory, my father missed it.

And when the replacement officials made the controversial call that gave the Seahawks the win, I could not rant and rave with my father the way I would have done once upon a time. 

By Tuesday morning, the outrage surrounding the touchdown call — the most egregious of many gaffes by replacement officials during the season's first three weeks — had fans, players and even broadcast partners questioning the credibility of the nation's most successful sports league.

President Barack Obama, a Bears fan slogging through a re-election campaign, took a moment to weigh in Tuesday: "We've got to get our refs back."

Even Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who went after Wisconsin's public employees unions last year, then survived a recall election that arose largely from the union attacks, is wishing for the return of the union refs. He tweeted: After catching a few hours of sleep, the #Packers game is still just as painful. #Returntherealrefs

But my father remains silent.

My father suffers from Parkinson's Syndrome. The initial onset was slow. But the dementia that comes in the later stages of the disease has progressed rapidly in the last several months.

In case you are unfamiliar with it, Parkinson Syndrome (related to Parkinson's Disease) is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. It impairs motor skills and cognitive processes. My father's hero, Mohammad Ali, also suffers from the syndrome, which may help to bring to mind the symptoms: rigidity, slowness and the inability to speak clearly. As you can imagine, for an athlete, these symptoms are terribly frustrating. For proud articulate men, they are emotionally devastating.

Parkinson's is idiopathic, meaning there is no known cause, although some cases have a genetic origin. That's why there is a huge political component to the disease. Michael J. Fox has been fighting hard for research that would include stem cell transplants, which conservative groups oppose for religious reasons.

In my father's case, however, I believe — and his doctors do too — that repeated concussions triggered the disease, especially given no family history of Parkinson's. My mother says she stopped going to Azteca games because she couldn't stand watching my father passed out on the field. And this was back in the 1950s, long before we know what we know today about concussions. 

(Leonard Lopate covered the link between concussions and Parkinson's Syndrome in an compelling segment of Please Explain, last Friday.)

This week, when everyone is talking about The Bad Call by NFL replacement refs, a story that is at the intersection of sports and politics, my father's two favorite topics, I miss my father most of all. I am grateful to football for the leg-up it gave to my father and family. Without it he might never have had access to the American Dream. But it also robbed my grandchildren of their grandfather, too early.