Football players and fans, if they had doubts before, have taken yet another hit to their favorite sport, with a retrospective study of hundreds of pro players’ brains finding a damaging disorder in a startling percentage of the donated organs.
Experts reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that 110 of 111 brains of onetime players in the National Football League, examined by neuropathologists and other experts, showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It’s a degenerative disease that experts think is caused by repeated head blows. It has been linked with multiple symptoms, including memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. The problems can crop up long after the head trauma stops.
Caution needs to be exercised with this research because the athlete-brain donors and their families were extremely self-selecting. They participated in the post-mortem study, some with guarantees of confidentiality about identities, because they had experienced or started to show likely CTE-related debilitation before their deaths.
Still, the NFL athletes made up only half the study group, and other onetime football players—those who had played in college, semi-pro or other pro leagues—also showed unusually high evidence of CTE, especially when compared with individuals who did not experience the sport’s routine head blows.
The NFL players were as young as 23 and as old as 89. They had played in a cross-section of NFL positions, including linemen, defensive backs, quarterbacks, even a punter and a place-kicker.
The New York Times offers a rich visual break down of the terrible toll that repeated head hits take on players across the field, offering a negative online scorecard of CTE woes, including those suffered by Hall of Fame quarterback Ken Stabler.
The published study, based not only on tissue exams but also with blind interviews of survivors, confirmed for many families their suspicions about CTE-related cognitive and personality declines, including loss of daily mental functions, depression, memory loss, irritability, and unexplained anger.
Researchers said the toll appeared greatest on athletes who started early, played long, and took repeated and sustained hits to the head. Many of these damaging blows may have gone undetected, occurring when their heads hit or bounced off the ground after tackles, or in game techniques like head slaps or what pros, especially, might regard as routine contact. As might be expected, athletes who played in positions like the line with frequent head contact had greater likelihood of more CTE-related damage. But quarterbacks and those in what might seem to be safer positions were not immune to harms.
It’s unclear whether occasional concussions—what now are deemed clear injuries and which sport organizers have sought to protect players more against—or lesser but constant head blows cause more damage, especially over time, the researchers said.
The NFL remained curiously quiet about this latest research. Though some of its top executives have acknowledged the sport’s huge problems with head hits and woes like CTE, some NFL owners and other league executives have gone out of their way to deny the game’s potential harms and to downplay or even attack researchers and studies raising concerns.
This poor behavior has continued, with word leaking out about the unwinding of $30 million in announced NFL support for research with the National Institutes of Health on head harms in football. The NIH, which stood up to football executives and got them to back down when they sought to oust one of the agency’s chosen, outspoken, and expert concussion researchers, reportedly will walk away from $14 million in remaining study funding, allowing an agreement with the NFL to simply expire rather than to keep wrangling with the league. The agency says the NFL can still make a direct, no-strings donation to the NIH and its research if it is committed to evidence-based study of its health woes.
The league’s resistance to addressing head trauma more is sad because the sport commands such popularity and influence. Kids worship NFL players and flock to participate in the game—though this is changing as its risks become more widely known, and grown-ups seek to protect young boys and girls from head trauma during what are supposed to be relaxing, fun diversions.
Youth leagues increasingly push lower contact versions of the game, like flag football. Players are discouraged from hitting drills and starting hard contact football until they are older. Pro football not only has settled with its former players over possible head harms, the league has put in supposedly rigorous protective protocols and pledged major sums for research on CTE and better head gear.
Indeed, the NFL may not be able to escape the growing, tragic roster of its players suffering from CTE, which also may affect athletes in soccer, hockey, kick boxing, wrestling, and other sports. Head trauma absolutely poses health risks for not just boys and men but also for girls and women in sports. Indeed, it’s good to know that more attention also is getting paid to this important but too often neglected research in this area.
Of course John Urschel, a Baltimore Ravens lineman and MIT doctoral candidate, may have made the tough but correct calculation that many in football soon will be arriving at: Two days after the latest CTE research was announced, he surprised many with his retirement from the pro game so he can pursue his advanced studies in mathematics. He’s 26, has been a standout athlete, and outspoken about head trauma in football. He played for three years—and qualifies for an NFL pension.