My dad died with an advanced case of CTE. He played pro ball for 10 years, college ball for four, and junior high and high school ball for six. He is a repeat offender, I guess you could say. He has the triple crown of CTE: Long career, starting in childhood, repeat sub-concussive blows. Did I say he also won three World Championships? It’s really lame that I can say those two things in the same sentence. I’m so angry that this disease exists, it’s almost impossible to give words to it.
I come from a family of athletes: Granddads played semi-pro baseball and college basketball; dad played basketball, football, baseball, signed a pro contract to play baseball in the Carolina League; mom played basketball; sisters and I swam, played baseball and softball, basketball, gymnastics and rowed crew. There’s a next generation too, playing soccer, basketball, volleyball, competitive dance and cycling. CTE paralyzes me, but I'm not worried about my kid because she plays basketball, and I know all there is to know about this by now. I made a movie. My dad played the 100-yard war, my daughter plays the 74-foot war. We got this. I know it all.
July 2016, win or go home. My 13-year-old daughter has taken a tumble, head over heels, and it’s the fourth game of Nationals. If they win this one, they head into the championship round. If they lose, they go to the consolation bracket—the bracket for losers. Her spill is a slow-motion event for me. My daughter is crazy scrappy, and at five foot seven inches, short for the post even for a 13-year-old. Her opponent, six inches taller and 40 pounds heavier, has mistakenly gotten the idea that she can strip the ball from her and my daughter is setting her straight.
Apparently the bigger girl doesn’t know anything about my kid. In the tussle, my daughter goes flying, head first, then feet, like a circus acrobat, only she’s not in the circus. She’s only 13, we are at AAU basketball nationals in Las Vegas and I’m stunned. I know everything there is to know about concussions and CTE, except that it could happen to my daughter.
I pulled her from soccer to prevent her from heading the ball, for chrissakes. She has dinged her head. I’m aware of what this could mean—but she swears she is fine. She might be fine. She might not be fine. It’s really hard to tell sometimes. Is she lying? Or hasn’t it hit her yet?
I know what I’m supposed to do. But until a couple of years ago, my belief was that if you’re not puking, bruised, bleeding and blistered, you haven’t tried hard enough. I know it’s irrational. Bleeding? That’s ridiculous! I mean, my daughter is playing basketball. She’s not bleeding! Seriously, people. I’m not proud of myself admitting that this is my overarching gut response, but it is the most honest feeling I have, pretty much all the time. Bring it! BRING. IT. She isn’t bleeding, why do you want me to stop her from playing?
Up until this moment, my biggest concern in my daughter’s athletic career is that she hasn’t yet pushed herself hard enough to puke. Now I’m terrified at what I might have set in motion. Still—Win or go home—that’s the dominant voice in my head. She has the rest of the summer to heal, but only 10 minutes left in this game and they need her to go on to the next round. I’m ashamed to say I let her play.
Two days later, they have finished the lowest they will finish at nationals at sixth place. My daughter is feeling nauseous and has a migraine. She’s supposed to be boarding a plane to go to camp, but I’m worried that she shouldn’t fly.
I thought I knew it all. But now, I’ve traded my dad’s 100-Yard War for my kid’s 74-Foot War. What have I done?
Girls’ concussions are making the headlines now and it’s not looking good for repeat offenders.