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Dying to Play Football

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Kosta Karageorge did not suffer from CTE, but larger questions loom.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Background

A pathologist's report indicates that the OSU walk-on player who took his own life in December was not suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his death. Prior to walking onto the football team, Karageorge competed for three seasons as a heavyweight on the Buckeye wrestling team. Owing to his extensive career in contact sports and the suspicious nature of his death, many questions arose as to the potential role head injuries might have played in his apparent suicide. He had a history of concussions and his mother reported that he had suffered a bout of confusion not long before his death.

CTE: The Ugly Truth

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the clinical term for a degeneration of the brain resulting from repeated, severe head injuries. CTE was previously known as dementia pugilistica, or "punch drunk", as the symptoms first appeared in boxers. Though the disease can only be definitively diagnosed after death, CTE is known to manifest itself in a number of ways. Individuals suffering from CTE exhibit signs of dementia, mania, anxiety, aggression, and depression. Previously, CTE had been linked almost exclusively to a history of concussions, though recent research by the Cleveland Clinic indicates that even sub-concussive head blows can produce measurable changes in an athlete's brain.

Several high profile suicides and deaths have been at least partly linked to CTE. In 2012, former Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then drove to Arrowhead Stadium, where he committed suicide in front of the team's GM and coach. Earlier that same year, former NFL star linebacker Junior Seau was so haunted by what he believed to be the effects of CTE that he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. His goal was apparently to preserve his brain for scientific study, which would later reveal CTE. Former Falcons defensive back Ray Easterling was found to have CTE after committing suicide only two months after Seau. In 2011, Bears star linebacker Dave Duerson also took his own life. He was diagnosed with CTE postmortem.

While CTE is degenerative in nature and thus often manifests itself later in life, two notable cases have grabbed national headlines. The suicide of a 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania lineman in 2010 was linked to CTE after doctors discovered early signs of degeneration in his brain. He was the second-youngest athlete to be diagnosed with brain damage from CTE. The youngest was a 17-year-old football player who died after receiving the last in a long string of concussive and non-concussive blows to the head.

CTE has gained notoriety in recent years for two reasons. The first is the gut-wrenching string of suicides among athletes in contact sports, most notably football players and pro wrestlers. The second is the military. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led to an influx of new mine-resistant/ambush-protected vehicles--or MRAPs--soldiers who lived through roadside bomb blasts in the new vehicles exhibited curious, CTE-like symptoms. The symptoms were dubbed Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI) by military doctors. Recently, the research on CTE and mTBI has begun to indicate that the injuries are of the same variety.

The Death of a Buckeye

Karageorge's mysterious death naturally raised the question of CTE. Hours before his death, he sent his mother a cryptic text message: "Sorry if I am an embarrassment, but these concussions have my head all F----- up." Teammates later would say that Karageorge was extremely tough, and they believed he failed to report a concussion on more than one occasion.

As college football continues to expand in popularity and the debate about player compensation rages on, there is little doubt that the issue of head trauma will continue weigh heavily on the institution of football. Many in the B1G would argue that Brady Hoke's gross mishandling of Shane Morris' concussion during the 2014 season was the nail in the head coach's coffin at Michigan. In this writer's opinion, solving the head injury issue will be vital to the long-term viability of football as a collegiate sport. Doubly so if players are to retain some semblance of amateur status.

We will likely never know what caused Kosta Karageorge to take his own life, though theories abound. Some include the loss of a cherished relationship. Others are more far fetched. His own family will likely always wonder why their beloved son and brother is no longer with them. In the end, it does not matter for us to know. What matters is that a good young athlete left us too soon. Though his death was not caused by head injuries, the questions his passing raises nonetheless force us to examine the sports we love and consider the risks our student athletes take when they don their school colors each Saturday.

To the Karageorge family, we wish you peace.