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Kaepernick isn’t the NFL’s biggest problem, CTE is

One fan’s choice to boycott the game has little to do with the unemployed quarterback

Almost exactly one year ago, Colin Kaepernick responded to reporters when asked why he chose to sit during the national anthem before a San Francisco 49ers preseason game. This set off a firestorm of controversy whose embers are still white-hot today.

In the past year, activist groups have joined forces with Kaepernick to bring attention to the issues of the oppression of people of color and police brutality. As the father of a 24-year-old black man and the grandfather of a 7-year-old black boy, I am keenly aware of the precariousness of black life, especially for men. My wife and I have done everything we could to prepare our son for the pitfalls that may befall him as a black man. We’ll also work with our daughter and son-in-law to do the same for our grandson Darius, but there’s one thing we may not be able to protect him from.

While Kaepernick, his supporters and the media have been stoking the flames of this controversy to remind us all of the issues, including protests outside the NFL offices and even calls for a boycott, in my opinion this isn’t the most pressing reason to boycott the NFL.

As important as the issues surrounding the Kaepernick controversy are, the danger of growing up black and male isn’t the thing that makes me fear the most for my grandson’s life — chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma, is what keeps me up at night.

Darius has been playing football since he was 5. While it is true that there is no conclusive causal link between football and CTE, the evidence is very compelling and brings me as much if not more concern for Darius at 7 as flashing blue lights would if he were an adult behind the wheel of a car.

For starters, the 2013 book League of Denial is an excellent resource for understanding the history of CTE and brain injuries and the NFL’s denial of the issue. The Boston University CTE Center recently published a study that looked at the brains of more than 200 deceased football players; 111 of those brains belonged to former NFL players, and 110 of those were found to have CTE. Several former football players have committed suicide because of the symptoms of CTE.

Dave Duerson and Junior Seau purposely preserved their brains when taking their lives, and their autopsies confirmed that they indeed suffered from the disease. CTE was also found in the autopsy of the brain of an 18-year-old who played football. If that’s not enough, Mark Fainaru-Wada, one of the authors of the above book, just co-authored an article for ESPN The Magazine (“Who Does This To People?”) that looks at the collateral damage that CTE and brain injuries have on families of former football players, especially their wives.

Darius’ father and I can help him read and I hope even master the shifting defenses that he will face every day as a black male in the game of life. We can help him understand how to protect his blind side, when to throw the ball away, the risks of throwing into dangerous coverages, and also to understand that he may not get the same calls and protection from the refs that others take for granted. We can teach him how to stand up for himself and others and how to call for a consistent application of the rules, and even how to fight to get unfair rules changed. However, the one thing that we can’t protect as long as he is playing football is his brain.

After reading League of Denial four years ago, I stopped watching and caring about football altogether. Over the past four years, I’ve tried to get a few of my friends and colleagues to join me in boycotting the NFL because of CTE and brain injuries. No one took me up on my offer. Most really didn’t care. Recently, a few of my friends asked me if I would join them in a boycott of the NFL over Kaepernick. Instead of just talking about the social issues surrounding the controversy, I decided to go for two, and I used it as an opportunity to bring awareness to brain injuries and my own boycott. So far, two people have sworn off football.

I have one last piece of personal business left with football, and that is to get Darius as far away from it as I can. I’ve urged his parents to pull him out of the game. I pray that they are listening. He loves football, and I’m sure it would break his heart if he had to give it up, but at this point it’s a matter of life and limb. I urge other parents and grandparents to do the same.

Andre Kimo Stone Guess is a writer and cultural critic from the Smoketown neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. He was VP and Producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh. He now runs GuessWorks, Inc. with his wife Cheryl.