Where am I and what we are we doing?” my dad says, giving me a confused look for the 10th time in 10 minutes. “You are here in Grand Prairie, Texas, with me and my family,” I answer for the 10th time in 10 minutes, leaning into the uncomfortable reality of my father, my hero, now suffering memory loss from playing professional football.
My father, Curtis McClinton, who once played for the Kansas City Chiefs, is believed to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the result of severe head trauma after multiple blows to the head, causing irreversible brain damage. While the condition is associated with longtime boxers and professional football players, evidence is mounting that the condition impacts a range of athletes playing contact sports, including professional wrestling, hockey and soccer. Destructive effects of CTE don’t manifest for years, sneaking up on sufferers and their families like a thief in the night.
A study released in 2016 shows retired 40 percent of players receiving MRI scans suffered from brain injury. And 87 of 91 players studied at Boston University tested positive for CTE. While retired quarterback Rodney Peete shows no symptoms, he joined a Harvard University study after the 2012 death of his friend Junior Seau, who committed suicide while suffering the debilitating effects of CTE.
The resulting dementia, memory loss and depression leaves families unable to sit on the sidelines but serve as active caregivers. We are called to bathe, feed, care and watch out for our gentle giants as though they are children once more. The financial loss is devastating and astonishing, especially when one is not aware of the condition.
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Before his diagnosis, my father took out loans, became a victim of phone scams, and drove down the wrong side of the road and other life logistics before we really knew what was happening. I vividly recall the day my dad took my tiny five-year old hand in his giant one and escorted me to preschool.
This is the same man who instilled in me servant leadership. The realization I am now the caretaker squeezed between generations as a mother, wife and caregiver is breathtaking. I’m now member of the Sandwich Generation, according to Pew Research, where half of adults in their 40s and 50s have provided for parents over age 65 in the past year.
Helping manage my father, who can’t remember anything past 30 seconds, is painful. He does not remember his grandchildren nor any details about our life.
This begs the question of the future of football. It’s the one event that causes Americans to put aside their differences for a couple of mutual anxiety-filled hours of cheering for the home team. Do we allow our children to remain open to playing the game after everything we know today? Could we allow our son to play the game?
One thing I know for sure is the NFL should continue to create more programs to address family and NFL alumni issues. I know the league has created many services directed toward players but not for the wives and children who support them.
I am proud of my father’s NFL accomplishments and beyond, such as when he worked to economically empower marginalized communities. He made history as a pioneer and architect of the American Football League and current-day Super Bowl.
My father liked to use phrases like “stay the course” and “honor your commitments.” By addressing the vast impact of playing this great American sport on players and their families, we can honor our commitment to those who’ve given their lives for our entertainment.
More important, where is the courage to fully support both players, and the families dealing with the devastating impact of CTE?
Marguerite McClinton Stoglin, Ph.D., is a Dallas Public Voices Fellow and Texas state director of IGNITE, which is building a movement of young women to become the next generation of political leaders.