Dr. Ann McKee has been accused of trying to kill the sport she loves, but she may be its only hope
Long but worth the read
The door to Ann McKee's office is a shrine to the human brain: artistic, scientific, and comic. An iridescent Andy Warhol carrying a Campbell's Soup can keeps company with a newspaper photograph of the anatomist and neurologist who created the Wilder Brain Collection at Cornell University. A teenage boy slouches across a 2006 cover of The New Yorker
, the lobes of his not-yet-adult brain depicted under a baseball cap. "MySpace" dominates his prefrontal cortex, an illustration of just how much has changed in social media, sports, and brain science. A bumper sticker asks, "Got brains?"
Brains she's got. Brains in glass jars in the storage room across the hall from her office. Brains blown up in digital images taken from autopsies she has done on some of America's most famously deceased athletes. Brains stored in a deli case in white plastic tubs that might otherwise accommodate 10 pounds of potato salad. Brains in baggies, slices of tissue that, she says, remind some people of the pickled ginger served with sushi.
This is the Brain Bank at the Bedford Veterans Administration Medical Center in Bedford, Massachusetts. Here, in a small room dominated by stainless steel, McKee performs autopsies. She examines the brains of athletes — men and women — who, without really knowing it, put themselves in harm's way. She sees the brains of soldiers who knew the risk. In all of them, she sees what happens when the brain is assaulted.
Among other things, Ann McKee is chief neuropathologist for the VA, Boston University's Alzheimer's Disease Center, the Framingham Heart Study, the New England Centenarian Study, and the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which was created in 2008 to examine the impact of collisions between oversize human beings in pursuit of balls, yards, pucks, wins.
She is a mother, a painter, and a frustrated jock who says she can't keep up with her family. She is exhausted and inexhaustible. "I think it shows, but I can't stop."
Only she thinks she looks her age — 59. "Most neuropathologists look and sound like they've spent time in formaldehyde," says David Hovda, director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center. "Ann, well … "
"She's a brilliant scientist who happens to be a little blonde bombshell," says Eleanor Perfetto, widow of former offensive lineman Ralph Wenzel, whose brain tissue is currently being studied in McKee's lab. Like McKee, Perfetto, a pharmacist who has a Ph.D. in public health and a senior position at Pfizer, knows the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated world. "That's why people look at her and think, This is a woman who cuts up brains?
There's such a dichotomy. Her work is something a lot of people would not want to do, and certainly not a lot of women. She's so unexpected."
"I'm a Cheesehead," McKee says.
This explains the framed 1968 Green Bay Packers yearbook and the January 22, 1969, cover of Sports Illustrated
with Jerry Kramer cradling Vince Lombardi in his arms. Her pooches at home wear Green Bay Packers dog tags. Within reach of her desk, she has a roster of empty-headed bobbleheads — Brett Favre in green-and-gold, in white-and-green, in purple-and-white; and Aaron Rodgers, Favre's estimable successor in the huddle and in her affections. And a hero of another kind of artistry — a ringer in street clothes named Vincent van Gogh.
Every football Sunday, she parks herself in front of the TV in her authentic Packers foam Cheesehead ($17.95 at packersproshop.com
) and Rodgers's no. 12 jersey and prays that none of the men on the field end up on a dissection table. To date, she has found ravages of CTE, the neurodegenerative brain disease that has become her life's work, in over 70 athletes, nearly 80 percent of those she has examined. Among them: 18 of the 19 NFL players she has autopsied; three NHL enforcers; and a boy just 17 years old. McKee, who received $1 million in funding from the VA as well as a home for her lab, has also documented evidence of CTE in combat veterans exposed to roadside bombs.1
"The coolest thing about Ann is she spends all day doing autopsies on NFL players and can't wait for the weekend to put on her Packer sweatshirt and climb into bed with a big bag of popcorn and a beer," says Gay Culverhouse, former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who now advocates on behalf of former players.
"Well, I don't usually do it in my bed," McKee says.
The Packers' loss to the Giants in the playoffs was a blow, but also an opportunity to work. By Super Bowl Sunday, she had recovered sufficient equilibrium to host a family party. She wore her Cheesehead — and even volunteered to send me a photograph. "I love it — I love football," she says, her face falling like the pocket collapsing around her favorite quarterback. "I'd like to put everything I know about it in another room when I'm watching it. But it's hard to do it through the whole game. I have enormous admiration for the physical athleticism and ability. It's strategic but requires skill that most people don't have. I get extremely caught up in it. At the end of the game I think, How could I watch this?
The day America gave itself to Super Bowl XLVI feels as long ago as the Roman Empire. Since then?
- March 2: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announces the findings of an investigation into bounty hunting by the New Orleans Saints, a system — football's favorite word — organized by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
- March 21: Goodell suspends Williams as well as Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton.
- April 4: A tape recording of Williams's pregame exhortation is released: "Kill the head, the body will die." (Those pregame, pep talk fighting words sicken Perfetto. "I've seen what happens when the brain is killed," she told me a month before her husband's death. "It is a long, agonizing journey for that body to die.")
- April 19: Ray Easterling, former Falcons safety, commits suicide. He and his wife were lead plaintiffs in the first class action suit filed against the NFL, in August 2011, seeking damages for seven former players. A year later, there are approximately 113 suits pending, involving more than 3,000 players, which have been consolidated into a master complaint in federal district court in Philadelphia. This class action suit charges the NFL and official helmet maker Riddell with negligence and hiding information linking football-related head trauma to permanent brain injuries.2
- April 30: Headstrong, an Off-Broadway play about a former NFL player living with post-concussion syndrome, premieres.
- May 2: Goodell suspends four Saints players, including Jonathan Vilma and Scott Fujita, a member of the NFL Players Association executive committee who has advocated for independent neurologists to be on the sidelines. That same day, Junior Seau, a future Hall of Famer who did not have a diagnosed history of concussions, was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest — the same awful methodology Dave Duerson chose when he killed himself, leaving a suicide note asking that his brain be left in care of Ann McKee and her team. The findings of CTE in Duerson's brain were released on May 2, 2011.
- June 13: Pop Warner football, which registered more than 285,000 children ages 5-15 to play in 2011, bans head-to-head hits and limits contact in practice to 40 minutes a day. That night, Terry Bradshaw, the former Steelers quarterback who now receives treatment for short-term memory loss at the Amen Clinic in Newport Beach, California, told Jay Leno: "In the next decade, we will not see football as it is."
It is a measure of the sea change in public perception that Junior Seau was immediately popularly diagnosed with CTE, despite the existence of personal problems that might have played a role in the suicide. On July 12, his family announced that part of his brain tissue had been donated to the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for study. Two weeks later, Goodell announced the creation of NFL Total Wellness, a new program of mental health benefits, including Life Line, a free telephone service staffed by mental health professionals and suicide prevention experts. The next day the medical examiner in Richmond, Virginia, confirmed a diagnosis of CTE in Easterling's brain.
The potential cost of employment in McKee's favorite sport is never far from her mind. She reaches for Green Bay Brett and flicks his molded-plastic noggin with her finger. The oversize head bobbles and wags, lurching back and forth on its spring like a kid trying out a pogo stick. Only the smirk on his prefab mug remains fixed.
"Get the irony?" she says.
Over the last four years, McKee has become the most visible member of a cohort of research scientists and family members — wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of the dead, dying, and demented — who have forced the issue of chronic brain trauma into the forefront of American consciousness. The process has engendered enormous publicity as well as criticism and jealousy in the scientific community, which is every bit as competitive as the NFL. Her work has brought "a great deal of acclaim, exposure, and recognition," says neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University and co-director of CSTE. "But at the same time it's brought a great deal of pressure. Not everybody greets her findings with the same degree of enthusiasm."