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Robert Scheer

Raider Fan's Loyalty Is Tested by News of Ex-Quarterback's Brain Disease

Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler on the sidelines during a 1976 AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Oakland, Calif. (AP)
Robert Scheer
Editor in Chief
Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist. His columns appear in newspapers across the country, and his…
Robert Scheer

As a recently suffering Oakland Raiders fan, I greeted the death of Kenny “The Snake” Stabler with a cocktail of fond memories of being in the Rose Bowl Stadium delirium as he led the Raider Nation to victory in the 1977 Super Bowl in Pasadena.

But it’s a cocktail laced with the bitter news from this week that Stabler, like so many of his peers, had suffered terribly for years from the effects of concussions incurred during those glory days. The autopsy of his tortured brain, and the accounts of his longtime partner about his suffering, confirmed what the NFL and its slavish camp followers had long denied as to the barbarism of the sport.

I haven’t had a chance to fully survey the reaction of my fellow Raider Nation fanatics, no longer being a habitué of the once exquisitely seedy Oakland bar scene now boringly gentrified by the spillover of the Silicon Valley elite, so I can only rely on the inanity of Raider radio chitchat to take the pulse of a fan base that, like all others, tends to glory in rather than be repulsed by excessive violence.

There is little talk of the mental health of the athletes, unless a needed player is forced to sit out the season because of possible criminal behavior or unless there is a more innocent case such as when a Raiders center went AWOL in Mexico the last time the team got into the Super Bowl, a game played in San Diego in 2003.

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Luckily that day I failed to complete a deeply suspect ticket purchase at a gas station with a Hells Angels type that would have emptied my bank account for the privilege of watching the Raiders go down badly to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Aside from our lack of a proper center, the opposing coach, Jon Gruden, had the advantage of being familiar with much in the Raider playbook, memorized before he departed as head coach in Oakland.

Life is not fair, I know, as evidenced by the hot topic on East Bay sports radio about the Raiders’ effort to blackmail Oakland once again by attempting to repeat their earlier escape—a 1982 move to Los Angeles—by going to San Diego, Las Vegas or some more forlorn destination.

Being a season ticket holder who followed them down to L.A., where I happen to live, and then back to Oakland, I want them to stay put. The stadium is fine, and I speak with the firm knowledge of a fan who traces his life’s journey as a progression from the depths of the black hole in the lower end zone to my current glorious perch close to the 50-yard line at the club level.

That is my most important achievement in life—well, at least my favorite—and it is about to be snatched from me by the team’s threatened move, a Raiders betrayal of loyalty, though that is not my main beef today. Hell, I have voted for presidents who took us into needless wars that I felt compelled to cover as a journalist. And truth be told, I will probably be suckered into following the Raiders in their next move as long as they stay west of the California line.

But it was the condition of Stabler’s brain at the time of his death last July that has subverted my half-century love affair with the club. And this crisis in my faith extends beyond one team to the entire National Football League, where the problem of head injuries unfortunately is endemic. The headline in The New York Times put the moral dilemma perfectly: “Ken Stabler, a Magnetic N.F.L. Star, was Sapped of Spirit by a Disease of the Brain.”

This disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, resulting from repeated head injuries, and established with scientific accuracy only through an autopsy, has now been documented in the cases of more than 100 professional football players. A recent example was Giants safety Tyler Sash, who died at the age of 27 in September.

Seven of those diagnosed are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and on Saturday Stabler was selected to join their ranks. But the NFL’s very lucrative, tax-exempt cartel long fought against recognizing the danger, and unfortunately the settlement the NFL reluctantly agreed to after growing legal challenges did not cover the onetime quarterback in his decade of suffering. Stabler, and all those whose work generates the $9 billion-a-year profit of the NFL, deserved better.

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