Ken Stabler, CTE, and Football's Irreconcilable Violence
The posthumous CTE diagnosis of legendary NFL quarterback Ken Stabler raises hard questions about the physical punishment inherent to football.
Photo by Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
This feature is part of Super Bowl Week at VICE Sports.
For just about all of his life, Ken Stabler ran into things. Sometimes, on football fields, he ran into other athletes. Sometimes, off the playing field, the collisions were more metaphoric; growing up, Snake made a habit of running into trouble for the sake of rebellion, whatever its causes.
This is for sure: in the course of a very-lived lifetime, Stabler did a lot of things that, on the surface, left those watching his near-perfect athleticism wondering why he seemingly wanted to sabotage success. He was christened a three-sport wonder (football, basketball, baseball), a sure thing, but he did a lot of colliding that made no sense.
In high school, kicking out the lights on the top of a police car? Getting kicked off the team? Where's the sense in that? In college, butting heads with Bear Bryant and getting tossed off the team? Quitting the Raiders in the early days because they weren't giving you enough cred?
A whole lot of collisions visited the late Oakland Raider quarterback, who is commanding news today both as a potential (and long-overdue) Hall of Fame inductee and as the latest high-profile victim of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease widely thought to be brought on by experiencing a whole lot of violent jolts to the brain.
So why does Stabler's recently released diagnosis of CTE feel so heavy, perhaps heavier than those of NFL immortal Junior Seau or New York Giants icon Frank Gifford?
Maybe it's because the wild-wired Stabler stood for football as we have always understood it, a sport built on dangerous, thrilling, unnecessary risk—and in light of all these deteriorating ex-NFL brains, we're growing panicked and confused about how to reconcile the game we love with the sacrifices it demands.
Or maybe it's because Stabler stood for the last era in the league where unabashed violence was the norm—at least, in the AFC of the 1970s, when Oakland and Kansas City and Pittsburgh loved mauling each other on a regular basis, then decrying the other's dirtiness, all the while knowing that all were complicit in this game within The Game, in which it was understood by everyone that, on any given Sunday, "Whoever's standing at the end, wins."
Or maybe, just maybe, it's because in this Sunday's Super Bowl, another charismatic and confident and self-assured quarterback will, as Stabler always did, put his head into play during the ultimate game, with little regard for the risk.
Like the Snake, Cam Newton passes and runs from the gut, and the heart. He plies his trade because it brings him joy. But with Stabler's diagnosis—at the time of his death from cancer last year, his brain, we now know, qualified as Stage 3 of 4 on the CTE scale of brain-worn-ness—we can hardly pretend to ignore what the news about Newton might be down the road.
It's coincidence that the Stabler report emerged now, but coincidence doesn't make this moment any less teachable. We now have enough data, from the first collision to the latest CTE diagnosis, to know that it's time for the game to decide what it wants to be—and for us, its fans and providers and enablers, to decide what we want from the game.
More than any team, the Raiders of the 1970s emblemized what professional football's athletes and fans have always loved about this sport: the brutal beauty, and an acknowledgment that the game's inherent and glorious physicality will always border on felony. Today, the NFL's marketers can glorify Odell Beckham Jr.'s ballet all they want, but it's still the sight and the sound of a tight end bowling through two defenders, or of a nose tackle bulling the guard straight back into the quarterback's face, or of a barreling running back standing a linebacker on his head, that make many of us rise to our feet.
There was an added appeal to Ken Stabler's Badasses, the team that won more games than any other in the decade. They didn't just play over the edge; they defied decorum at every turn, with owner/GM/dictator Al Davis never missing a chance to rub the league's face in his team's delirious defiance of football convention.
The pro game began as lunch-pail league back in the 1930s and 1940s, a black sheep of a sport that flew in the face of the dominant, pristine college game. Under Stabler, the 70s Raiders were the last NFL team to really revel in the role of the workingman.
Off the field, Snake's Raiders were little boys having the time of their lives. They rode motorcycles through bars. They rode horses to practice. They brought streakers to practice and strippers to the annual August air-hockey tournament.
They smoked weed in the closet of a suite in their training-camp motel after lying to their wives and girlfriends about the date when training camp began, so they could show up and hang with their buddies for a few extra days. For Stabler, training camp was always a wonderfully adolescent time, between picking up women in various local taverns by posing as a swashbuckling, fantastical crop-dusting pilot—why the hell not?—and collecting panties of women he'd shared time with back in Suite 147 at the El Rancho Tropicana motel. Fullback Pete Banaszak once told me he had a vivid memory of one pair draped on a lampshade: "Mesh."
But the real Raiders rebellion, the one that insisted on violence as a necessary way of life in the NFL, came on the field of the Oakland-Alameda County-Coliseum, where Stabler's troops won their weekly war games. For those hypnotized watching that second game from the Left Coast every Sunday, the sun still bathing the California grass when the East was already dark and cold—much to the despair of the league's officers—Ken's team played, to borrow from the poet Mike Tyson, "with murderous intent."
The brutality has a point: to intimidate quivering opponents into basically giving up before the second half, something linebacker Phil Villapiano once assured me was a not uncommon occurrence. Less common, but documented, were at least two times when an opposing team's fans met the Oakland team bus and, not at all kiddingly, requested that the Raiders not hurt their players that afternoon.
Not that some of Stabler's Raiders didn't revel in their acts, or live to dole out physical harm; they considered themselves football players. Safety Jack Tatum was so wired into punishing any adversary that head coach John Madden routinely had to tell him not to hurt his own teammates in practice. (For the record: Tatum was trying to avoid hitting Darryl Stingley, whom he left a quadriplegic, on the play in question, but he hunted heads as much as anyone else.) The other safety of the most triumphant Raider team of the time, George Atkinson, fully earned his title as the Assassin. Guard Gene Upshaw used to tape a pad onto his forearm, then illegally soak the club in hot water, then lead sweeps with forearm shivers that could knock a linebacker out.
And yet! During their glory years, some of the Raiders' most resonant blows were even legal. Consider this astounding stat: every year of Ken Stabler's decade as the Raiders' leader, his leading rusher was a fullback, as in Bludgeonball. For his most productive running backs, running the ball didn't mean rushing as dancing; it was football as in let's joust with our heads. Week in and week out, Oakland won by hitting harder, on all sides of the ball.
Of course, Snake didn't deal out much violence himself. As a scrambler who seldom slid, he absorbed it. And his willingness to take punishment—combined with his stature as a team leader—helped sanction the brutality. The Raiders played for Ken, and Ken played hard—with no indecision, and no regrets.
"I enjoyed being me. I enjoyed being me, whatever that was," he told me five years ago, during a series of conversations during which he revealed no signs of dementia or confusion—and was more than willing to parse the characterization of his lifetime being marked by "wildness."
"I don't know if I was wilder than most, but I do know there has to be a fire," he said. "I don't know if that's wildness, but there has to be something inside you that makes the fire burn harder than others."
Last July, after living years with a failing memory and worries about his cognitive state, minutes before he died, Stabler's last words to his partner Kim Bush, it's been reported, were "I'm tired."
At whatever cost, at whatever price, the fire had burned out.
So what is it that football wants to be going forward? And what do we want from it?
Played as it was originally intended to be played, played as the game that captured a culture—and culminates in Sunday's annual ecstatic and trillion-dollar ceremony of worship—professional football will continue to exact its toll on each and every athlete who chooses to assume the risk of brain damage, all to stoke their own internal fires. Entertaining us in a way that no other sport seems able, the NFL can continue on its current course, and claim quantum clusters of the brains of the people who play it.
Or, played in a different and presumably safer fashion—in which football players are no longer bred as early as junior high school for maximum power and strength; and the game's rules are continually tweaked to enable athleticism and punish brute force; and fewer people play the sport for shorter periods of time, to reduce the cumulative and compounding damage to the human brain—football will come to resemble the highly athletic ballet that's the Pro Bowl. An elaborate game of touch football. This will exact much less of a toll on its performers, but more of a toll, of course, on the game.
Stabler, no doubt, would have argued for playing the sport that defined him the same way he lived his life: with reckless abandon, colliding with anything that tried to shackle him or change his personality.
I have no idea what Cam Newton will do. As a human being, I'd like to think that he will make the sensible choice: take the money and the trophies, and run. Retire Monday morning. Preserve his brain cells.
But as a fan of the man and of football, I wouldn't mind if he stuck around for a while, which, of course, he's going to do. He's got too much of the Snake in him to listen to the science. He seems to know how the game is supposed to be played.