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Hernandez: As long as football flourishes, the Kevin Ellisons will pay the toll

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The highlight of the football season is almost here.

The high school championships in California will be played in a week and a half. The college bowl season starts the following week. The NFL playoffs start on January 4.

New heroes will appear, their achievements celebrated, their characteristic moments captured as the newest chapters in the mythology of sport.

Hidden by the festive spirit is an uncomfortable reality of how the games will also produce Kevin Ellisons.

On the lawn of their dreams, they will swing to their downfall. The game they love will destroy them.

A former USC defensive congress, Ellison died in October 2018 when he was fatally hit by a minibus while wandering the northern lanes of the 5 Freeway in the San Fernando Valley. He was 31.

The descent from Ellison to mental illness was recorded in a spooky article on the front page of Nathan Fenno that appeared in the printed edition of The Times Tuesday. A posthumous examination of his brain revealed that the former captain of the Trojan team had CTE, the neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injury.

The finding was not shocking, largely due to his way of playing. Ellison was known as a particularly hard batter.

The same vicious tackles that made him a popular player could be what led to his death.

This paradox was unintentionally recorded in a tweet by the athletic department of USC a few days after his death. "The late, great Kevin Ellison," read the message, including a video from Ellison who made a helmet-to-helmet recording on Cal receiver DeSean Jackson.

"Oh man," said the broadcaster who mentioned the game. "DeSean Jackson was almost beheaded by Kevin Ellison."

The details of Ellison's days after playing reflected the experiences of others with similar brain disorders. The sympathetic Ellison became a different person. Living in an apartment in Inglewood, Ellison experienced constant headache. He heard voices. He graduated in economics, but was unable to keep a job.

Although the relationship between CTE and mental illness remains unclear, the dangers of playing football have been scientifically established for more than ten years.

More than 100 former NFL players tested after slaughter were confirmed to have CTE. Several died of suicide, including Hall of Famer Junior Seau, also a former USC star, and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez.

The abundance of CTE cases has, to a certain extent, given cause for concern.

The participation of youth football has decreased over the past ten years.

Some high-profile players have previously withdrawn from the NFL for health reasons, including the former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.

For players who continue to play the game, new rules have been implemented to discourage high impact collisions.

But …

Well, soccer is still soccer. The game will always be violent.

This is why the sport is attractive. We Americans are in love with violence, as long as that violence is not directed at us. And with its field generals, blitzes, and patriotic-inspired games, football is a war simulation.

The brain of an unidentified football player suspected of suffering from CTE is damaged by research at the VA Boston Healthcare System.

(Josh Reynolds / For The Times)

The more conscientious fan can express his or her disapproval of how the NFL initially refused to recognize links between concussions in football and long-term neurological problems.

He or she may have problems with the exploitative nature of college football.

And he or she might recognize that the only way to ensure that there is no other Kevin Ellison is to completely ban football.

But to actually advocate a ban on football?

Does not occur, at least not in the number required to make a change. The game is too deeply rooted in our culture, so much so that banishing the sport is an idea that we have never entertained seriously.

What is certainly compromised, however, is the game level. Football figures experience some of the same problems that resulted in the decline of another sport with brain injury: boxing.

As with boxing, the talent pool is shrinking. And as with boxing, an increased emphasis on the safety of the athlete limits the time that footballers spend on their profession. Just like the modern boxer who only saves three days a week, he is less likely to develop the same skills as his better-trained predecessors, footballers who rarely practice tackling are less likely to develop effective tackling techniques.

But football has protected itself against this inevitable loss of quality by selling more than football. As long as the game is part of the university experience, as long as there are tailgate parties and fantasy competitions, football remains a flourishing company.

Players continue to take the field in search of wealth. Some of them will realize their ambitions. Others will end up like Ellison.

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