Brain disease causing NFL concern


The Appalachian Online

Jason Huber


The National Football League is one of America’s greatest past times, as we all love Sunday afternoons cheering for our favorite team, tailgating, checking fantasy football scores and relaxing with friends and family. However, while we sit on our couch and watch our team play, players are putting their lives at risk.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University researchers recently discovered evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brains of 87 of 91 deceased NFL players they tested, according to data that received a $1 million research grant from the NFL in 2010.

CTE occurs when an individual receives blows to the head over a period of time, causing progressive damage to the nerve cells in the brain. This can lead to depression and dementia.

The studies revealed roughly 96 percent of former NFL players whose brains were studied tested positive for brain disease.

These brains are from former NFL players who did have concerns about CTE prior to their death, but it still too great of a number to ignore. It means that current players are putting themselves at risk for the same outcomes down the road.

“The disease can only be definitively identified posthumously,” said Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the Department of Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, in a PBS interview. “As such, many of the players who have donated their brains for testing suspected that they had the disease while still alive, leaving researchers with a skewed population to work with.”

While the numbers are skewed, the findings are remarkably consistent with previous studies, McKee said.

“People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that were sensationalizing it,” McKee said. “My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players.”

In all, the department has identified CTE in 131 out of 165 individuals tested, or 79 percent, all of whom played football at the high school, college, or professional level.

Should we feel worried about the state of football? We must determine whether we need to create more safety-conscious rules, possibly hindering the game we love.

Many young kids grow up idolizing certain players and little do they realize that these players are destroying themselves, all to just compete and entertain us.

The NFL is aware of this research and has said it wants to do everything they can to try and prevent this problem.

“We are dedicated to making football safer and continue to take steps to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology and expanded medical resources,” the league said.

In May, Dr. Russ Lonser, head of NFL’s Research Subcommittee and member of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, said there has been a 25 percent reduction in concussions and 40 percent reduction in helmet-to-helmet hits in the last three years. This is positive process, but these numbers need to increase even more as many players are having their future affected.

Many deceased former NFL players that were confirmed to have CTE include safety Dave Duerson, safety Ray Easterling, and more recently, hall-of-fame linebacker Junior Seau. Each died by suicide.

Concerns about brain health have led young players such as former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland and former Seattle wide receiver Sidney Rice to announce early retirements.

As an avid NFL fan myself, these studies are scary to see knowing that players I watch every Sunday are putting their lives, and possibly others, at risk.

Former NFL player, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, committed a murder-suicide two years ago, murdering his 22-year-old girlfriend before driving to a Chiefs training facility and turning the gun on himself. It was later determined that his brain had been affected by CTE.

Many NFL players who get concussions during games are supposed to be taken out of the game, but there have been instances where some players stay in the game and put themselves at more risk. Concussions in regular season games fell from 173 in 2012 to 112 last season, the league said in its 2015 safety report.

These studies should not turn fans away from watching the game. It should not cause you to feel guilty because we cannot do anything except watch, but it should make us feel a little uneasy knowing these players are putting themselves at risk. All we can do is hope that the NFL continues to work with the medical community and make more strides to improve the safety of the game.

It has only been two years since the NFL concussion protocol has been put in place, so this can possibly decrease the amount of deceased NFL players being diagnosed with CTE as many of the studied players were not in the league with this guideline in place.

The NFL is at an all-time high in popularity and it would be a shame to not have the players out there competing every week, but the NFL has to make sure its game is safe and not have players come right back in games after getting hit very hard in the head, and make sure players are getting the best treatment they can receive.

Trying to create awareness, actor Will Smith will be starring in a movie premiering in December called “Concussion” and it will trace the story of Bennet Omalu who, in 2005, shocked the football world with an article in the journal Neurosurgery, detailing his discovery of CTE in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster.

Brain disease is something to be taken seriously, and the football community has to become more involved with these issues. If we don’t create better actions, we may not have those relaxing Sundays watching football anymore.

Story by: Jason Huber, Sports Reporter