Could brain injuries suffered on the football field explain O.J. Simpson's erratic behavior?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 21 2007 4:26 PM

Squeezing O.J.'s Brain

Could brain injuries suffered on the football field explain O.J. Simpson's erratic behavior?

O.J. Simpson. Click image to expand.
O.J. Simpson

With the murder trial, the "hypothetical" outline of how he would have killed his ex-wife, and now his "sting operation" in a Las Vegas hotel room, it's hard to remember that O.J. Simpson used to play football. He was actually pretty good at it, running away with the Heisman Trophy in 1968 and making the Pro Bowl five times in his NFL career. As a pro, Simpson carried the ball more than 2,400 times. As the evidence mounts that football can cause massive head trauma, it's worth wondering: Could O.J.'s erratic behavior have something to do with taking too many gridiron collisions?

After former Eagles defensive back Andre Waters committed suicide last year, the Waters family sent pieces of his brain to a forensic pathologist. The doctor reported that damage sustained while playing football had made Waters' brain similar to that of "an octogenarian Alzheimer's patient." According to his doctors, Hall of Fame center Mike Webster suffered frontal lobe damage due to repeated head injuries; he was suffering from dementia when he died at age 50. A post-mortem analysis of Chris Benoit, the professional wrestler who killed his wife and son and then committed suicide, revealed massive brain damage. Diaries were also found with cryptic, disturbing passages that suggested Benoit's behavior wasn't a result of steroid-induced rage, but rather a gradual decline into violence and dementia.

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All of these athletes sustained traumatic brain injuries that killed brain cells and left them permanently impaired. Dr. David Hovda, a neurosurgeon at UCLA told me that any altered consciousness—seeing stars, dizziness, or feeling dazed after a hit—is considered a mild TBI. Even a mild concussion causes damage. With football's macho culture, players often pick themselves up and stay in the game, leaving themselves open to more serious harm. But repeated TBIs can lead to an altered frontal and temporal lobe, which can cause heightened anxiety and a loss of emotional control. Football players tend to damage their temporal lobe, which controls feeding, fighting, fleeing, and the person's sex drive.

It appears that Simpson never had a documented head injury. A search of online newspaper archives didn't find any reports of concussions. Jim Peters, a sportswriter who covered Simpson's career in Buffalo, told me he couldn't remember Simpson missing any action because of a blow to the head.

A lack of published reports doesn't mean Simpson never sustained brain trauma. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the dangers of head injuries weren't well-known, players and trainers rarely reported concussions. Even today, players often don't say when they've suffered a head injury. Christopher Nowinski, a former pro wrestler who wrote Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis and now heads up the brain-trauma-focused Sports Legacy Institute, told me that 50 percent of players admit to feeling concussionlike symptoms in anonymous surveys. That's a far greater number than have gone public with their injuries. It's also worth noting that in Simpson's era, helmet safety standards weren't close to today's level—neither was the size of the opposing linebackers.

According to the neurosurgeons I spoke with, brain trauma alone can't turn you into a criminal. (Hollywood seems to think otherwise.) The doctors did say, however, that traumatic brain injuries can make a person more violent and short-tempered.

So, where does that leave us with O.J.? After retiring from football in 1979, he started an acting career and was a respected announcer on Monday Night Football. By all accounts, he was a functioning member of society until June 1994. The effects of repeated brain damage can become more marked over time, but it seems dubious to suggest that O.J.'s brain damage caused him to go haywire in Las Vegas. Instead, it's more likely that as O.J. gets up there in age (he turned 60 in July) his mental descent may occur more quickly and be more pronounced because of the hard hits he suffered on the football field.

We'll probably never know how damaged Simpson's brain may be. The people in charge of his remains—most likely his children—would have to send parts of his brain matter to neurosurgeons, like Andre Waters' family did. But at this rate, perhaps the Goldman family will find a way to win the rights to Simpson's brain. If they let the neuroscientists take a peek inside O.J.'s head, we may finally get an answer.

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