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King Henry VIII and the Super Bowl

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | February 7, 2016

Henry VIII, famous for abandoning the Catholic Church and marrying six times, liked jousting. Jousting is martial sport where two horsemen in armor gallop towards one another at breakneck speed holding wooden lances. The aim is to strike your opponent and if possible unseat him. Henry was concussed several times, the most severe battering occurring 1536 when the King was unconscious for two hours.

portrait of Henry VIII

Henry VIII portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger (Art Gallery of South Australia)

Prior to the 1530s, Henry VIII was an athletic, multi-talented (33 of his musical compositions survive in the British Library), and charismatic, if libidinous ruler. After the late 1530s he became obese, forgetful, subject to fits of range, and impotent.

Dr. Arash Salardini, a Yale neurologist, has a paper to be published in the Journal of Clinical Neurology, suggesting that Henry VIII, like many American football players, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It is a plausible diagnosis for someone who enjoyed a sport involving being knocked on the head, or having your horse roll over you when you have been unseated – something that happened to Henry.

More and more post mortem studies of the brains of modern NFL players are being undertaken. So far CTE has been found in 90 out of the 94 NFL players whose brains have been examined. They have ranged in age from Tyler Stash, who died aged 27 to Earl Morrall who lived to be 79. Last week, The New York Times published photographs of the brain of NFL quarterback Ken Stabler. CTE lesions were especially severe in the hippocampus and amygdala, which are regions of the brain important in emotions, memory and learning.

jousting reenactment

Seattle Knights jousting reenactment (Doug Herring via Wikimedia Commons)

As I write, the 50th Super Bowl is about to kick off. We can be certain that, as we watch, the inevitable course of CTE will be accelerated in some of the players.

CTE can only be diagnosed post mortem  and we can never be certain about Henry VIII’s diagnosis. The evidence of CTE in men who play American football is inescapable. As a great university, renowned for following the findings of science, we should have the courage to close down UC Berkeley’s football team.

Jousting, like American football, was a popular sport. It still makes for dramatic sequences in Hollywood movies. A football-free campus will not be popular but, like jousting, American football will end.  Jousting ceased in France in 1559 when the reigning king, Henry II, was killed in a jousting accident.

Ending American football will also be financially prudent. Sooner or later, it is highly likely that eager lawyers will begin to sue universities for exposing young men to head injury and CTE, just as the NFL faces a $1 billion law suit to compensate former NFL players.