Humans have always been entertained by violence, especially in sports. From the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome to our current love affair with mixed martial arts (MMA), people have responded enthusiastically to public displays of violent competition. And nothing says violent competition like a bone-jarring, open-field tackle on the football gridiron.
To be fair, American football is not only popular because of aggression and violence: the game involves speed, precision, and an intricate chess match between opposing coaches. But let’s face it: big hits draw big cheers.
Unfortunately, those crowd-pleasing collisions are taking a toll on the brain health of the players—who are fighting back with something as American as football: a lawsuit.
For many years, the National Football League (NFL), which runs America’s most lucrative professional sport, denied and possibly concealed the link between football and long-term brain disease. In doing so, the league has become embroiled in controversy as a number of recent high-profile scientific studies have chronicled how former players are more likely to develop a number of diseases—including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer’s, and, most recently, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—caused by damaged brain cells.
The Latest CTE Study
Last month, a new study conducted by the nation’s largest brain bank, run by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University, concluded that 96% of former NFL players examined were diagnosed with CTE, a degenerative disease whose victims gradually lose brain mass over time. Its most common symptoms are:
- Loss of memory
- Difficulty controlling impulsive or erratic behavior
- Impaired judgment
- Behavioral disturbances including aggression and depression
- Gradual onset of dementia
Critics are quick to point out that only 91 former NFL players were examined and that studies like this may be blowing things out of proportion at a time when concussions among NFL players have been decreasing and research on CTE is incomplete.
Because CTE can only be definitively diagnosed through a post-mortem examination of the brain, research has been slowed by a lack of test subjects. In this study, all the players voluntarily donated their brains. Researchers also reinforce that their findings are consistent with past studies and that it’s only a matter of time before all the necessary data comes to light.
Of course, a diagnostic test to identify early onset CTE would be useful to screen military personnel, boxers, football players and others who are at risk, but at this point such tests are far from being available.
But studies like this are increasing pressure on the NFL to take action.
In April of this year—nearly four years after the lawsuit was filed—the NFL reached a settlement with about 5,000 former players who accused the league of concealing a link between football and brain injuries. The agreement is expected to cost the league nearly $1 billion over the next 65 years. Seem like a lot? Not really; it’s about what the NFL earns in a single season from sponsorship deals alone.
The NFL’s denials can be traced to a number of scientific papers written from 2003-2009 by the league’s “Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.” These papers concluded that “no NFL player” had experienced chronic brain damage as a result of repeat concussions.
During that time, the league’s top medical experts consistently denied the connection. Yet going as far back as the late 1990s, the NFL’s retirement board paid at least $2 million in disability benefits to retired players, concluding that football had caused their debilitating brain injuries.
The evidence has now become so overwhelming that the New York Times reported last year that the NFL admitted in federal court documents that it “expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems.”
Can Football be Played Safely?
In recent months, football legend Mike Ditka said he wouldn’t want his son playing football and linebacker Chris Borland retired after just one year in the league out of fear of more head injuries. Will Smith is even slated to star in an upcoming film, Concussion, which chronicles the story of how Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who discovered CTE back in 2005, was attacked by the NFL, which demanded that he retract his study.
To its credit, the NFL has taken steps in past years through rule and equipment changes to try to protect quarterbacks from getting blindsided by a 260-pound defense end or unaware wide receivers from getting t-boned by safeties charging with 1,600 pounds of “tacking force.” With football players today being far bigger, stronger and faster than they were a generation ago, these safety improvements are more than welcome.
But the biggest problem for the NFL—and the sport in general—is that it may not actually be about the big hits. A number of researchers hypothesize that incremental brain damage might be cumulatively building on almost every down, even from small hits. If CTE and conditions like it are caused by the repeated, minor incidents of head trauma that occur regularly in football, rather than by big, violent collisions alone, there might be no effective way to prevent this damage as the game is now played.
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