The New York Times reported on Tuesday night that Tyler Sash, the former standout Iowa safety who died of an accidental drug overdose at 27 last September, had been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. for short. It's a brain disease usually brought on by prolonged football careers with repeated blows to the head, and Sash's career as a strong safety was never lacking for contact.
What's even more unsettling is the extent of Sash's suffering, according to researchers:
Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the V.A. Boston Healthcare System and a professor of neurology and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine who conducted the examination, said Tuesday that the severity of the C.T.E. in Sash's brain was about the same as found in the brain of the former N.F.L. star Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 43.
Doctors grade C.T.E. on a severity scale from 0 to 4; Sash was at stage 2. McKee, comparing the results to other athletes who died at a similar age, said she had seen one case, a 25-year-old former college player, with a similar amount of the disease.
The diagnosis is, sadly, no surprise. Sash's fall after football was swift and pronounced, and his arrest in 2014 typified the erratic behavior of those suffering from the disease. Its advancement in his young age, however, is more of a surprise, if only because researchers said they had only seen one other similar case.
Sash's death isn't a problem specific to Iowa football, of course. The University of Iowa was Sash's home for just four of his 16 years of playing football, and as Marc Morehouse wrote in 2014, the University of Iowa has a substantial, multifaceted concussion protocol. There's no reason to think the school came up short in its medical treatment of Sash.
That shouldn't reassure you; it should terrify you. Tyler Sash's life and death as a football player aren't an aberration from protocol; they are part of the protocol. Football killed Tyler Sash.
Tyler Sash loved football, and played it for the majority of his life—16 of 27 years. Football gave him a college career, football gave him a Super Bowl ring, football gave him C.T.E. and football killed him. Football chewed Tyler Sash up and spit him out, broken and struggling to so much as function in the world. He couldn't, and then he died, 27 years old and profoundly incapable.
"My son knew something was wrong but he couldn't express it," Barnetta Sash said Monday night. "He was such a good person, and it's sad that he struggled so with this - not knowing where to go with it."
She continued: "Now it makes sense. The part of the brain that controls impulses, decision-making and reasoning was damaged badly."
There's no direct link between levels of contact and CTE, no mathematical formula that connects years of football played to life expectancy or symptoms of brain degeneration. Thank goodness for that, because Bob Sanders would have run himself straight into a grave before Tyler Sash even put on the black and gold. Playing college football isn't a death sentence, it's a gamble.
But good lord, what a gamble.
We're not here to tell you what to think about Tyler Sash or Iowa football, or college football in general. We'll still enjoy it and write about it here, and we'll still have folks read and comment. The sport isn't going away because of this news, and neither are all of the fans. Football killed Tyler Sash, and he was mourned on the 50-yard line at Oskaloosa
The one thing you can't claim ignorance on anymore, though, is football's lethality. Football killed Tyler Sash. How many more heroes does it need to kill before you stop watching? And likewise, the question we'll be asking ourselves at BHGP over the coming weeks, months and years is: how many more heroes does it need to kill before we stop writing it up?
We don't know that answer. There's no easy answer, no obvious road map from here. Whatever your viewpoint is, there'll be people who disagree vehemently, and you won't change their minds. So instead, think about yourself. Ask yourself some serious questions. Is Sash's death enough for you to say no to football? If not, is there a number of athletes that have to die before you turn off?
These aren't decisions that don't have any basis in sport. Auto racing's body count is legendary, and millions of NASCAR and Indy fans balance their enjoyment of the sport with the amount of participants it kills. It's part of the equation. But NASCAR's a sport where if you avoid disaster—if you don't hit the wall—you're fine. Tyler Sash didn't hit the wall. He racked up 217 tackles and 13 interceptions at Iowa in three seasons, starting the last 31 games straight. If anything, Tyler Sash was the wall.
It's good that the football program honored Sash this season, with the #9 helmets at Iowa State and all, and he'll be remembered by Kirk Ferentz, and by the university, and by fans in this state for decades to come. Of that, there is no doubt.
But if his death causes nothing to change, then we're doomed to this cycle again. And personally, I don't know how much of an appetite I have for going through this again. I enjoy watching these guys play ball, and I enjoy seasons like this, but I really don't want to be putting the number of one of the players from this magical season on the helmets in memoriam less than a decade from now.
Football killed Tyler Sash. There's no reason to think it won't kill another Iowa player in the coming years. Football's an easy sport to watch, but sometimes, it's awfully tough to enjoy.
Rest in peace, Tyler.