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In the year 564 b.c., a pankratiast named Arrichion stepped into the ring at the Olympic games. Pankration was a nasty mélange of wrestling and boxing, very popular with the crowds, in which the only holds barred were gouging and biting. Arrichion had won the title in 572 and 568, but this time he found himself caught in a chokehold. His trainer urged him on from the sidelines, exhorting him to valor, reminding him, lest he had forgotten, what was expected. What a wonderful funeral speech if one can say: He did not give up at Olympia. Inspired, Arrichion shifted his weight and kicked, dislocating the ankle of his opponent. The man surrendered. But Arrichion’s move, which won him the match, had broken his own neck. His corpse went home with laurels.

The Greek motto was “Victory or Death,” but the story of Arrichion calls for a slight modification: Victory in Death. Two and a half millennia later, Victory in Death could be thought of as the guiding principle of American football, where championships come at the highest cost. The life expectancy of an NFL player is fifty-five years. Those who play professional football are nineteen times as likely to suffer from brain trauma–related illnesses as those who don’t. Repeated concussions — in seven years a pro will sustain, on average, 130,000 full-speed hits — cause dementia, clinical depression, memory loss, and suicidal ideation. In 2005 offensive lineman Terry Long killed himself by drinking antifreeze. In 2006, forty-four-year-old defensive back Andre Waters shot himself; doctors said his brain resembled that of an eighty-five-year-old man. Before safety Dave Duerson shot himself in the heart in 2011, he left a note asking that his brain be sent to Boston University. Ray Easterling, another safety and the lead plaintiff in a concussions lawsuit against the league, and Junior Seau, a linebacker, both shot themselves in 2012. More than a hundred current and former players have signed documents donating their brains for postmortem analysis.

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