It’s no longer in question: Football has been our nation’s favorite sports pastime for a while. In a 2015 Bloomberg poll, 67 percent of folks said they preferred to watch football, with baseball the runner-up at 28 percent.
But another fact regarding football is also no longer in question. We’ve known definitively since March, 2016, that football-related concussions and the chances of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, are linked.
CTE is a degenerative disease of the brain caused by repeated blows to the head. It is known to produce a number of symptoms, including confusion, memory loss, depression and other mood disorders, behavioral problems related to violence, and dementia. These symptoms sometimes do not show up until many years after the blows to the head have ended. CTE can be diagnosed only by examining the brain posthumously.
A report released in the New York Times in late July, 2017, detailed the work of a neuropathologist who examined 111 brains of former NFL players. Of the 111 brains, 110 showed signs of CTE.
High Percentage of CTE in Players
The neuropathologist, Dr. Ann McKee, examined brains from deceased football players and published her findings in The Journal of the American Medical Association. In all, she studied 202 brains—111 from NFL players and 91 from players in the Canadian Football League, semi-professional leagues, college players, and even high school players. Out of the 202 brains, 87 percent of the former players were found to have CTE. As you might expect, the high school players exhibited mild cases, while the college players and pros showed more severe symptoms. Even a mild case of CTE, however, often demonstrates symptoms that affect the ability to think clearly, one’s mood, and behavior.
Dr. McKee has cautioned that her sample is a biased one, meaning that many of the brains she tested were donated because families wanted to know whether their loved one had developed CTE before they died. Still, 110 positive results out of 111 is a shocking number. It has also been pointed out that, even if every brain of the 1,300 NFL players who have died since the study began turned out to be negative for CTE—an unlikely result—then the 110 positive players would still mean that 9 percent of the players had CTE, an unusually large proportion when compared to the prevalence of CTE among the general population.
If you are a football fan, you’d recognize some of the names of the deceased with CTE, such as Hall of Fame quarterback Ken Stabler and linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide at the age of 43 in 2012. (Not all of the names of those tested for CTE were released, at the request of the families.) Suicide, unfortunately, is not unusual among CTE sufferers.
But one case is worth spotlighting, especially if you have kids playing the game. It concerns a player you probably haven’t heard of, Tyler Sash, who died in 2015 of an accidental overdose of pain medication at the age of 27. Sash had a brief career as a defensive back with the New York Giants and was released by the team in 2013. His family requested the test because Sash, who had played 16 years of football over his short life, had already begun showing signs of the disease at his young age, demonstrating bouts of anger, memory loss, and confusion. His brain tested positive for CTE.
Changes in the Works for Youth
Because the top health and safety official for the NFL has admitted to the link between football and CTE, the league now encourages children to play safer versions of the game. The NFL has been promoting versions of flag football and less risky types of tackles.
The national governing organization for amateur football, U.S.A. Football, has plans to introduce a vastly different youth football game. The new game format owes much to flag football, attempting to avoid much of the regular game’s violence as well. The organization recognizes that many parents are concerned, and rightly so, about brain damage, with youth football participation beginning to decline.
Much remains to be learned about CTE. In the meantime, football carries risks for all players, but especially for the young, developing brains of our children and teens. As Dr. McKee commented, “It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football—there is a problem.”
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