No one ever accused John Urschel of being stupid.
Far from it, as the Penn State alumnus and now suddenly retired National Football League player is pursuing a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in spectral graph theory, numerical linear algebra and machine learning.
He’s a math whiz but it’s medical evidence that likely caused him to abruptly retire today from the NFL at the age of 26.
Urschel’s retirement from the Baltimore Ravens – he did not say why he retired – follows the release Tuesday of what likely will be considered a landmark study.
The report showed that 110 of 111 former NFL players studied had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE. It’s a brain disease linked to concussions and repeated hits to the head – something that occurs with regularity in football.
It can only be diagnosed in someone after he or she dies by studying the brain.
Urschel was an offensive lineman in the NFL and for Penn State. He picked Penn State after coach Joe Paterno, whose players' graduation rates were among the best in Division I football, assured Urschel's mom that academics would be emphasized.
After Urschel suffered a concussion in 2015 with the Ravens, he said the injury hurt his ability to think well mathematically. And that’s not good for anyone, let alone someone who was named college football’s top scholar-athlete his final year at Penn State.
“It took me about three weeks before I was football ready,” he said, according to ESPN. “It took me a little bit longer before my high-level visualizations’ ability came back.”
The study, which also detected CTE in 48 of 53 college football players and three of 14 high school players, is another sobering reminder of the dangers of playing America’s No. 1 sport. An industry that on the professional level prints billions of dollars in revenue every year and brings tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually to big-time college programs such as Penn State’s.
It’s a reasonable leap that fewer parents will allow their children to play football. And that fewer kids playing football means a shallower pool of players for high school, college and NFL teams.
In time, quality will suffer and interest could wane. And that, in turn, hurts attendance, television and other viewership, sponsorships, partnerships, clout and, of course, revenue.
And that’s not a bad thing, considering that when big people run fast and violently collide with powerful force, bad things happen to them.
A blood sport, one might say, that some day should go away.