A new documentary by Al Jazeera English’s investigative news show, “Fault Lines,” gives an inside look on former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Carlton Haselrig battle with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE. The 25-minute episode is titled “Bloodsport.”
Haselrig, 54, died in July 2020 from liver cirrhosis, but he also dealt with dementia and delusions. His life wasn’t the same after retiring from the NFL. He believed he had CTE, but it can only be confirmed postmortem. The family donated his brain to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center for research, and it was found that he did suffer from CTE.
Haselrig applied for an award from the NFL concussion settlement in 2017 but his claim was denied. It was revealed after his death that Haselrig was among the thousands of former Black NFL players who were race-normed by the NFL concussion settlement. Race was used as a factor in the settlement’s medical evaluations, with the effect of making it more difficult for Black players to qualify for money from the league. NFL players’ cognitive impairment tests assumed that Black players had lower cognitive functions than non-Black players to begin with and expected lower scores on the tests.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been at the forefront of the NFL’s issues with CTE since the beginning. University of Pittsburgh neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu first make the connection between the disease and head trauma while performing an autopsy on former Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002. Fellow former Steelers linemen Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and Ralph Wenzel have also been posthumously diagnosed with CTE. Former Pittsburgh Steelers players Najeh Davenport and Kevin Henry first sued the NFL to have race-norming eliminated from the process of compensating former player that may have been impacted.
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“Fault Lines” asked neuropsychologist Eric Watson to re-score Haselrig’s tests as if he were white, and he found that Haselrig was, in fact, severely impaired and would have qualified to receive an award from the NFL.
“I was so sad because he should have gotten that money in 2017,” Haselrig’s wife, Michelle, said in the documentary. “He didn’t get to benefit from the fruits of his labor. He worked hard for that money — very hard.”
When it comes to receiving compensation, compared to a broken leg or severe back pain, it’s often hard for people to prove that they’re suffering from a traumatic brain injury or mental illness. For that reason, Michelle Haselrig recorded her husband’s struggles in his last months, which was shared in the documentary.
The scene showed Carlton Haselrig in immense distress, as he rolled around on his bed and screamed profanities, before sitting up and crying for assistance: “Help me, Dad! Father!”
His father, Fred, had passed away a few years earlier.
“I’ve had it described to me what the disorientation and rage and delusion that accompanies CTE (is like),” said Isaac Solotaroff, director of “Bloodsport.” “I never saw it firsthand the way that I did with these videos that Michelle filmed with Carlton — and, as she said, ‘I did it because no one was going to believe me if I didn’t do it.’ She just couldn’t believe how far he had fallen in such a short period of time. … This is the most honest depiction of what CTE looks like that I’ve ever seen. That’s what went through my mind when I saw it, and, of course, my heart broke for Michelle.”
Michelle said her husband “believed” that he didn’t have CTE because of what the NFL told him. It was clearly a lie, however.
“It was untrue,” she said. “How can a person be OK when they’re washing their clothes and they put the clothes in the freezer? My husband put his clothes in the freezer and thought it was the washer.”
Michelle refiled a claim to the NFL, as she believes her husband’s “score was tainted.” She has yet to hear back from the league.