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A Fan's Notes On Pro Sports, Brain Damage

I will watch the Super Bowl next weekend, along with several billion other people. I expect to cheer, shout and have some guacamole.

But as a fan, I'm finding it a little harder to cheer, especially for my favorite football and hockey players, without thinking: They're hurting themselves.

Not just breaks and sprains but dangerous, disabling brain damage.

Case studies have mounted over the last year. Dave Duerson of the 1985 Super Bowl-winning Bears shot himself in the chest just after the last Super Bowl and left a note: "Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL's brain bank."

That's Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which determined that Mr. Duerson's brain had been battered by at least 10 concussions and countless other football hits that may have caused dementia, addiction and depression that led to his death.

Jim McMahon, once the team's brash quarterback, confided at a 25th reunion that his memory is "pretty much gone."

"It's unfortunate what the game does to you," he said.

The dazzling Walter Payton of that same famous team died of liver disease. But a biography published last year achingly depicts the depression and addictions Mr. Payton suffered during decades of hits: thousands in games, tens of thousands in practice.

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins is hockey's greatest star — the skater who scored Canada's goal over the U.S. to win a Gold Medal at the 2010 Olympic Games.

But Sid the Kid suffered a concussion last January. Who knows when, or if, he'll play again?

Just a few weeks ago, John Branch of The New York Times wrote a heart-piercing series after 3 NHL "enforcers" — paid brawlers — died within four months last year. He focused on Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers, who accidentally overdosed on booze and oxycodone at the age of 28.

Boston University's Center opened Derek Boogaard's brain and found profound damage.

Chris Nowinski, a center co-director, is a former pro wrestler who loves contact sports. But he went to a Boston Bruins hockey game shortly thereafter and says that when a routine brawl broke out, fans stood and cheered. He couldn't.

Several former players have filed lawsuits. Sports writers and pundits have called for new rules and equipment, although most studies show new rules and equipment may do little to limit injury while players grow larger, faster, and risk more to sign million-dollar contracts.

I'll watch the Super Bowl next week with my children and wonder how comfortable we fans can be, sitting and snacking while too many of the players we cheer entertain us and get rich at such terrible cost to themselves.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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