Head Case

Experts say ex-football players with head injuries often end up in the criminal justice system. Former USC lineman Chris Brymer is exhibit A.

In response to questions about football and brain trauma, Tim Tessalone, a spokesman for Brymer's alma mater, issued this statement: "USC takes the issue of concussions, head trauma, and brain injury in athletics very seriously. Our athletes are cared for by USC's best doctors and athletic trainers, and our medical staff stays on the cutting edge of the latest developments in the area. USC follows and supports the NCAA guidelines regarding concussion and brain injury education, prevention, reporting, treatment, and management."

Not all are convinced of a link between football and brain degeneration. Mitch Berger, a UC San Francisco neurosurgeon who chairs an NFL subcommittee on the health of retired players, thinks football's risks to the brain have been overhyped.

"In all of professional football, I think there are somewhere around 11 or 12 confirmed cases of CTE. Now, think about that. There are a lot of people who have played football, and most of them have no problems," he says. "It's still a mystery. All we know is that there are football players who have played professionally, as well as in college, who have CTE. We really don't know, other than these anecdotal cases, whether there is an association or link between playing professional football and CTE." One of the problems with existing research, he says, is that there have been no studies in a control population of healthy former players — the dissected brains in which CTE has been discovered came from those with known histories of mental and emotional problems.

As to a link between Brymer's breakdown and his football career, Berger says, "It's going to be a very impossible thing to try to prove."

He's right, as Brymer has begun to find out.

The couple looked out of place in the gallery of Department 22 of San Francisco's Hall of Justice, tanned, attentive, both with full heads of blond hair starting to turn silver. The man was tall, with long limbs and broad shoulders, and reclined in his cramped, folding wooden chair. The woman stared straight ahead. When defendant Chris Brymer was led into the courtroom for a bail-reduction hearing before Judge Charles Haines, she craned her neck to see him.

Rebecca Young, managing attorney in the felony division of the public defender's office, was making a special appearance on Brymer's behalf. Solis, his full-time attorney, was out of town. Young gestured to the couple behind her when she introduced her client. "His parents have driven up to support him," she said. Robert and Wendy Brymer, whose son was in the dock, watched silently.

At issue that August morning was a defense motion urging Haines to release Brymer on his own recognizance without having to post bail, or at least reduce bail from the $200,000 at which it had been set. In the motion, Solis argued that Brymer's predicament should be examined in light of his mental problems.

"Mr. Brymer began to develop comprehension and communication problems, possibly related to a degenerative brain condition from his years as a professional football player," she wrote. "There are a number of recent studies that have conclusively proven a direct link between head injuries sustained in football and degenerative brain disease. ... Despite his efforts to seek medical treatment for his brain injury, Mr. Brymer's condition worsened."

Victor Hwang, a prosecutor in the district attorney's hate-crimes unit, was unconvinced. "I'm not sure where Ms. Solis gets the facts that she alleges," he told the judge.

The spectacle of a former football player at odds with the law is a familiar one to activists trying to call attention to the plight of potentially brain-damaged NFL veterans. The Steelers' Mike Webster was arrested for forging pill prescriptions in 1999, three years before his death. The late Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was arrested five times on charges including assault and drug possession before dying at the age of 26 when he leaped or fell — it's unclear which — from a moving car driven by his fiancée in December. An autopsy showed that he had CTE. Former Steeler Justin Strzelczyk, who endured depression and hallucinations after leaving the NFL, died in 2004 at age 36 when he led police on a high-speed chase and crashed his pickup. He too was found to have CTE.

"A lot of these people with CTE do come before the judicial system, because they make poor decisions," says Gay Culverhouse, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers president who now runs the Players Outreach Program, which helps former NFL players get access to disability benefits. "They start getting arrested for either battery or drugs. They're usually arrested three or four times."

Once funneled into the criminal-justice system, they have little luck. The courts have no formal mechanism in place for accounting for traumatic brain injury. That has led Culverhouse, working with Harvard Law School professor Peter Carfagna, a sports-law expert, to undertake an effort to develop a "dementia defense" for former football players that would serve the same function as an insanity defense. "We're trying to publish a white paper that would be a roadmap for defense counsel," Carfagna says.

It's not an easy road. The absence of definitive tests for CTE in living people makes conclusively proving it impossible, and most states have standards on the admissibility of scientific evidence that would restrict which, if any, medical experts could testify on the likelihood of a defendant's brain trauma. Prosecutors' and jurors' lack of sympathy for former high-earning athletes accused of crimes doesn't help.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Headaches, tell mle about it.  I played all four years of college football at USC with a headache. In fact, many people wondered why I did not try out for professional football, and that was it. I looked forward to the end of the headaches. Would I do it again? Yes, but that is because I seem to be okay, although some of my family and friends wonder about  that. I seem to be at my best when I am writing, so I blog political commentary a  lot. Keeps my mind in tune, I think.

San Francisco Concert Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.