Tony Dorsett Has CTE

Whereas some players accentuated the violence of football, Dorsett masked it. It did not save him.
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Tony Dorsett. (Getty Images)

When I was eight years old there simply no one I wanted to be like more than Tony Dorsett. Not Malcolm X. Not my Dad. No one. Tony Dorsett was pretty, as we used to say. He did not so much run as danced. He was the first player I watched as a kid and had that feeling—every time he touched the ball—that something other-wordly might be about to happen. (Randall Cunningham used to give me that same feeling. Derrick Rose, these days.)

To perform in that way, to be a magician, to bring people to the edge of themselves, up out of their skin, simply by running with a ball seemed incredible to me. Watching Dorsett was like a watching a doe play tag with a pack of hyenas. The doe always won.

Football is violence. Some running backs embrace this and broadcast this. I think of how Earl Campbell played offense like he was playing defense. He looked for contact and exacted a price on all who went looking for him. "He fell," Campbell once said after bulling over a linebacker. "I kept running."

Whereas Campbell accentuated the violence of football, Dorsett masked it. Dorsett danced. It did not save him:

Dorsett’s 15-minute phone interview with The News was punctuated by long silences as he stopped in mid-sentence, searching for his train of thought.

Dorsett won the 1976 Heisman Trophy at the University of Pittsburgh and rushed for 12,739 yards during 12 NFL seasons, but nowadays he often can’t remember routes to places he’d driven for years.

“I knew something was going on. It takes me back to the fact that we [as players] were treated [after head injuries] and still put back out there in harm’s way, when from my understanding management knew what they were doing to us.

“They were still subjecting us to that kind of physical abuse without the proper treatment. It really hurts. My quality of life [long pause] deteriorates a little bit just about every day.

I left the NFL two seasons ago. I still check in weekly on NFL scores and news. If I'm in a bar and a game is on, I watch. I went to Howard's homecoming game last week. For the first 35 years of my life, football was my favorite sport. It's going to be a long time before I'm totally done. 

It isn't the violence to which I object. Players often say "I know the risk." I think it's worth taking them at their word on that. Longevity is not the only value in the world. There are experiences so intense that you might trade them for the years. Were I white I could pad my life expectancy a bit. Still I somehow believe I got the better end of the deal.

What rankles me is the inability to look squarely at what this game is, to obscure, to pretend that penalizing head-shots, that decreasing "big hits," that playing the game "the right way" will make it all go away.

And even as I write that I wonder if I am being too cute, if I am not being radical enough. Circling back to the conversation du jour:

The report states the the female volunteer told police that Incognito "used his golf club to touch her by rubbing it up against her vagina, then up her stomach then to her chest. He then used the club to knock a pair of sunglasses off the top of her head.

"After that, he proceeded to lean up against her buttocks with his private parts as if dancing, saying 'Let it rain! Let it rain!'" the report states. "He finally finished his inappropriate behavior by emptying bottled water in her face."

I grew up in a time and place where you really did have to fight if you expected to be able to live.  I was a boy. I adopted certain codes in order to survive. But I never liked them. To beat a man down, even then, I felt was a kind of self-degradation, a lack of control, a reduction. I am not speaking abstractly.  I don't know how many of you have ever kicked anybody's ass, but the few times (the one time) I did, what I felt in the aftermath was great pride, then greater shame, and then even greater fear. I don't like being hurt. I like hurting other people even less.

But when I was young our bodies were all we had. Imposing those bodies on other bodies was the height of our power. It was also the limits of it. All the while we knew that were other people with greater power, who imposed with force so great that it seemed mystical to us. To see football players—arguably the most exploited athletes in major sports—bragging about manly power, along the same codes that once ruled my youth, is saddening.

I've been reading a lot about war, lately. Yesterday it was bloody Stalin in Prague and Belgrade. When I was young "Prague" was just a funny sounding word and I thought Belgrade was in Ireland. It's getting harder, the more I read, to find any valor in violence. Even self defense is a kind of failure, a breakdown, a submission. Perhaps this is our world and the job of a moral human is just to try to, somehow, live honorably in it. It's been two seasons, now, since I gave up my religion. Everything I have seen since has confirmed my feeling. I did not want the world to change. I would settle for myself.

I am sorry for rambling.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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