Before this NFL season even kicked off, the league's PR machinery was already working full-time to deal with the fallout of Ray Rice's domestic abuse, which mostly amounted to saving the collective asses of Commissioner Roger Goodell and team owners who couldn't manage anything more than "ummm, ummm, errrr" in response to basic questions. Meanwhile, concussions took a back seat. The league has long refused to take head injuries and their lasting damage to football players seriously. As the October 14 deadline nears for former NFL players and their beneficiaries to make a decision on the league's Machiavellian concussion settlement offer, the league is likely feeling smug about putting its inhumane actions in the rear-view mirror.
But a new finding from the Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the country's largest brain bank dealing with traumatic brain injuries, has once again drawn attention to the horrors that await football players. Of the 79 brains of former NFL players that it examined, the Boston University center found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—a crippling degenerative disease—in 76 of the brains.
That's an alarming connection between NFL players, concussions, and brain disease; a link that the league initially denied and then tried to obfuscate in 2007 with a face-saving pamphlet that said concussions don't really have any long-term impact. The new batch of positive CTE results says otherwise. Caused by an abnormal buildup of tau proteins—a protein common to the central nervous system—CTE could have symptoms as unnoticeable as mood swings and confusion, and blatant and troubling effects such as memory loss, onset of rage, depression, and dementia.
Until now, the league's argument against the link between football and CTE hinged on the small sample size of available evidence and the resulting narrow possibility of a prevalence of harmful brain damage among the more than 1,000 active NFL players. But what's troubling here are the implications raised by the Center's results. The odds of finding CTE in a random sampling of people's brains are next to zero. For CTE to be found in nearly 100 percent of a 79 brain sample size is damning.
In addition to former NFL players, the brains of college, high school, and semi-pro football players were also tested. Twenty-five of 49 of those brains tested positive for CT, meaning out of 128 brains tested by the Center, 101 showed symptoms of CTE. Unfortunately, conclusive proof of CTE can only be found after the victim has passed away, which has delayed the arrival of evidence against the league's dismissal of the situation. "Playing football, and the higher the level you play football and the longer you play football, the higher your risk," Dr. Ann McKee, director of the brain bank, told PBS about the new report.
The message that these new CTE numbers send is simple: football is far more dangerous a sport than the NFL would have you believe. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who found CTE in NFL Hall of Fame inductee Mike Webster, the first NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE, had earlier said that an NFL doctor once told him that "If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football."
The diagnosis of CTE in living players could prove to be a breakthrough. Recently, former offensive lineman Dave Herman, a star on the 1969 Super Bowl winning New York Jets team, became the sixth living player to be diagnosed with CTE using brain scans. Research around CTE in living patients could help prevent incidents such as the suicides of Junior Seau, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, and former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson, who left behind a note for his brain to be donated for CTE research. One of the biggest issues that this research could resolve is what percentage of concussed players end up with permanent brain damage, which would unravel the league's logic that concussions can be "managed."
The NFL's concussion management logic recently came under new assault with the release of actuarial data that shows a third of all retired players will develop long-term brain trauma problems more frequently than the average American male. However, the NFL still will not admit any wrongdoing over its now decades-long attempts to conceal medical data from players. One can only wonder how many more brains of dead players need to be tested for the NFL to own up.