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When die-hard fans support a deadly sport: Analyzing ‘Concussion’

By Abbey Gingras, News Editor

Sitting in the theater for "Concussion," I was transfixed. Not by Will Smith's acting or the dramatic visuals, but by the overwhelming feeling of guilt.

For those unfamiliar, "Concussion" follows a doctor by the name of Bennet Omalu who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in football players. CTE is a degenerative disease of the brain that is caused by repeated brain trauma - typically, multiple concussions.

Cue football players crashing into one another on the turf, again and again. So many times that they spiral into madness. So many times that Hall of Famer and former Steelers player Mike Webster died at the young age of 50, homeless and alone. So many times that Steelers titan Justin Strzelczyk complained of hearing voices before driving 90 miles an hour the wrong way on the highway, crashing into an oncoming truck and dying at just 36 years old.

When Webster died in 2002, the study of CTE began with Bennet Omalu and a microscope. In September 2015, researchers at the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University confirmed they found CTE in 96 percent of the brains they've examined - all National Football League (NFL) players or former players.

Yet, here we are on every game day - dressed in our spirit wear, drinking warm beer and screaming from the stands. Cheering when our team hits an opposing player especially hard. Worshipping football Sunday, complaining when personal fouls are called on illegal hits.

Why has this not become a national debate? Growing up in Pittsburgh, loving football was ingrained in me at an early age. I still watch the Steelers when I get the chance, including the especially hard-to-watch playoff matchup with the Bengals this year in which hard hits and fouls were a dime a dozen.

But with every game we watch, we condone the sport. We contribute money to the problem, we fuel the concussions and deaths and cases of CTE.

Just last week, the NFL released a new report stating that concussion diagnoses in 2015 had increased by 32 percent. Clearly, the new safety precautions and regulations are not solving the problem. Imposing a fine for an illegal hit doesn't stop illegal hits. It just makes a small dent in the huge salary of a defensive NFL player. People like Ryan Shazier and Vontaze Burfict won't stop aggressive hits for slaps on the wrist.

No matter what rules are laid out by the NFL and Roger Goodell, bad hits will continue to happen. Those hits will keep turning into concussions, and concussions will keep turning into CTE.

We need to look at what we're passively accepting in the name of entertainment. For every NFL game watched, every beer drank, every jersey bought, we sacrifice the players we claim to love and the teams we live and die by. But we aren't the ones dying - the players are.

I don't know if there is a safe way to play football - if there is, I'd fully support it. But until we can find a way to save these players, we cannot sit by and funnel money into an industry that is killing the men whose names we wear on our backs.

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When you watch the Super Bowl ads next week, think about what the money is funding and whether a game is worth someone's life.