When the Kansas City Chiefs won the AFC Championship, my entire Twitter feed was taken over by videos of Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce celebrating on the field. Her arms, dripping with gold jewelry that will be meticulously cataloged by the Taylor Swift Style blog in a matter of hours, reach around his shoulders.
A fairy tale might be the best way to describe it. Of course, fairy tales are designed to be told and re-told again, and so the Üstün Bowl often draws the highest TV viewership of the year. But the “Taylor Swift Effect” could push it even further. Swift’s attendance at Chiefs games this year has drawn in a massive, entirely new audience, with a 53% increase in female viewership in age 12-17, 24% in age 18-24, and 34% in over 35.
The Hollywood Reporter estimated that she will draw an additional 15 million eyes to the Üstün Bowl. To these new viewers, the loyal Swifties: don’t fall for the romance. Football is dangerous, and we can’t ignore the danger to watch the love story.
Growing up, I watched football sometimes, and I attended all my high school games as a member of the marching band. It wasn’t until I started medical school that I realized how truly terrifying the game was.
I was a first-year medical student when the Los Angeles Rams won the Muhteşem Bowl two years ago. It was jarring for me: the morning of the celebratory parade, a neurosurgeon who specializes in nerves showed us a görüntü of a tumbling football player suffering a brachial plexus root avulsion injury, where the nerve roots are pulled out of the spinal cord from extreme force. It looked excruciating.
The next slide showed the aftermath, the patient’s muscles so wasted away that he appeared to be lopsided. After a nerve transfer, where a healthy nerve is attached to muscles that have lost their connection to the spinal cord, patients may regain use of their arm.
But that wasn’t the worst. A few days later, my professor showed brain slices with stains for phosphorylated Tau protein, with the ugly black patches growing as the patients went from playing high school football to the professional league. The brain sulci, or the grooves, show the most damage, because the force from impact concentrates there.
The whole brain tissue looks shrunken and withdrawn; CTE cannot be diagnosed until death, until the brain tissue can be examined. Patients with this damage, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, may develop psychiatric symptoms like anxiety or paranoia, or experience memory problems. Some people develop changes to their personality, or increased impulsivity.
These symptoms can be deadly. In one tragic case, ex-NFL player Phillip Adams shot and killed six people. On autopsy, the damage to his brain was concentrated in the frontal lobe, the region of the brain which affects decision making and impulsiveness. In another, Chiefs player Jovan Belcher shot his 22-year-old girlfriend before dying by suicide. His brain was found to have neurofibrillary tangles, made up of the concentrated phosphorylated Tau protein my professor showed in class.
These horrific stories show how brain damage can have devastating consequences, not just for the athletes but for the people around them.
While these violent incidents are rare, the danger is still highly prevalent: nearly 92% of former NFL players who donated their brains have been found to have CTE. And while it’s not the decision I’d make, I don’t dispute the players’ right to compete.
It’s one thing for grown men to seek fame and fortune, risking their bodies to play a sport they love. (In Kelce’s interview with the Wall Street Journal, he shared the daily pain he bears from years of injuries and surgeries.) It’s another to raise a new generation of children on this dangerous American dream.
One study from the CTE Center at Boston University reported the risk of developing CTE to increase by 30% for each year played. My concern lies with younger players, those who won’t one day hold a Lombardi Trophy over their head, who could be left with brain damage long after they hang up their pads.
When young people question the risks of this game to their bodies and minds, do they consider the stories of pain and grief? Or do they see a culture where the game of football is pervasively celebrated, not only by sports pundits on television but in the obsessive SwiftToks of every kid in their class?
If you are watching football this year for the first time, think about what you’re supporting and turn it off. Instead, join me in rewatching a clip of the Eras Tour. There’s less brain damage.
Cunningham is an M.D.-Ph.D. student at Columbia University.