Off Broadway Play Tackles Football Concussions

Headstrong tim cainTim Cain plays a researcher who stresses the damaging effects of football on the brain. (Credit: Gerry Goodstein)

Many sports fans would argue that football is America’s new pastime. Some college football stadiums hold over 100,000 fans, the Super Bowl attracts a television audience of about a third of the nation, and media coverage of the National Football League is overwhelming. With such widespread popularity it’s surprising that a degree of uncertainty surrounds the future of the sport that so many live and die for. However, it is the fact that football players may literally die because of their participation that the sport is in flux. On Wednesday night, I attended Headstrong at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, a play that embodies the struggle between love for football and the danger of playing it.

As a football fan and neuroscience enthusiast I was intrigued by the topic. The story revolved around retired NFL linebacker Duncan Troy (played by Ron Canada), whose son-in-law Ronnie Green, another former NFL player, has recently passed away after drinking anti-freeze in his early 30’s. Due to the circumstances of Green’s death, Troy’s daughter is approached by an organization interested in studying the brain of her late husband.

Through the life and death of Green, the play portrays the disastrous effects football can have on the human brain, while also illustrating the passion many have for the sport. With a cast of only four, Headstrong does an excellent job of illustrating the various elements of this topic. The play discusses how concussions and years of skull-smashing football may have inflicted Green with a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E.

C.T.E. is a progressive degenerative disease that causes neurological decay. This decay is associated with severe headaches, impeded speech, memory loss, impaired judgment, depression, and dementia. Those afflicted with C.T.E. normally have a history of head injuries, however it is difficult to identify C.T.E. in patients as it is only diagnosed after death. Although once associated solely with boxers, neuroscientists are now beginning to understand that the disease affects other athletes like football and hockey players, and even military veterans. In fact, the link between C.T.E. and football has become widely discussed, especially after the suicides of former football players David Duerson, who shot himself in the chest to leave his brain for research, and Junior Seau.

Headstrong ron canadaThe characters played by Ron Canada and Nedra McClyde face complicated questions. (Credit: Gerry Goodstein)

Through the character of Duncan Troy, Headstrong develops the ideologies of athleticism, heroics, competition, and strength that make football what it is, and what people love. The character exemplifies the ex-athlete absorbed in his glory days, refusing to recognize any flaws in the game he loves. The dynamic among him, his daughter, and the organization researching C.T.E. creates an interesting debate on what should or could be done to make football safer.

Headstrong is running through May 27th and even if you are not a football fan I recommend you see it. General admission is $30; student and seniors pay $20. The play is part of the EST/Sloan Science and Teachnology Project, a collaboration between the Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The project’s goal is to bring the worlds of science and technology into art.

–Simon Fischweicher

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