Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Adrian Robinson hung himself in May 2015 shortly after signing a contract to play in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Robinson was a standout at Temple University and spent time in the NFL playing as a UDFA for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2012, and then the Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers, and Denver Broncos.
Former teammates and fans expressed their grief, and soon may be expressing indignation and outrage. It was announced Wednesday that Robinson's brain showed signs of CTE, a brain disease liked to concussions that can only be diagnosed posthumously.
Repeated concussions are commonplace in professional football. Players who experience symptoms of a concussion go through a mandated concussion protocol. However, even repeated minor, asymptomatic blows during the course of a career can disrupt a player's cognitive functioning, emotional stability, and overall quality of life. By some estimates the average professional player is subjected to between 900 and 1500 such blows per season. Even players who have never showed symptoms of a concussion are at risk. College player Owen Thomas was found to have CTE even though he was never diagnosed with a concussion.
In recent years, the NFL has taken player safety more seriously, implementing new policies and procedures to protect players who have sustained trauma to the head during the course of play. Medical observers can now call timeouts when they suspect a player may have suffered a concussion.
Still, for players suffering from post-concussive syndrome and their families, the NFL response has been woefully inadequate. For years, the NFL denied the long-term dangers of repeated concussions. When they finally created a committee on brain injury in 1994, the medical expert in charge was then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue's personal physician, Dr. Elliot Pellman, who had no experience specific to neurology. He also falsified his credentials, and failed to protect players under his direct care, once sending New York Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet back into the game after he had been knocked out.
Even current league medical professionals, including Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Steelers team physician, have downplayed the impact of repeated head injuries on the long-term health of players. Maroon told ESPN earlier this year, "I think the problem of CTE although real, is it's being overexaggerated and being extrapolated to youth football and high school football... It's a rare phenomena. We have no idea the incidence. There are.. more injuries to kids falling off bikes, scooters, falling in playgrounds than there are in youth football." CDC data does not support Maroon's claims and his research has come under fire by other professionals not affiliated with the NFL.
Meanwhile, the NFL pressured Sony to change parts of its upcoming film Concussion so that it was less about the NFL's poor policies on player safety and more about CTE pioneer Dr. Benjamin Omalu. Per the New York Times, the president of Sony pictures wrote in an email, "We'll develop messaging with the help of NFL consultant to ensure we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet's nest." At this year's Hall of Fame induction, the NFL prohibited Junior Seau's daughter from speaking on his behalf, eventually compromising and allowing her to speak in an awkward interview format.
Adrian Robinson appears to be the latest casualty in the brutal world of NFL football. While multiple factors can contribute to a person's decision to end his life, head injuries can cause mood disorders and exacerbate existing emotional problems. Sadly, the sport that was a source of pride and identity for Robinson ended up contributing to his death. The more the NFL attempts to minimize the dangers of head injury and silence entities seeking to proliferate the truth, the more dangerous the game will be for players and the more often families and friends will be left grieving the loss of a son, brother, friend, and teammate.
And, an article by Neal Coolong after Adrian Robinson was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles: