The NFL and CTE: More than just a headache

Now more than ever, parents, as well as current and former players have come out and said that their children will not be allowed to play football. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, a two-time AP NFL Coach of the Year, made it very clear in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Peter King exactly how he felt about the subject. “This is the greatest game in the world,” Arians said. “We have this fear of concussion that is real, but not all of those, I think, statistics can prove anything. We got new helmets coming out. We got safety issues … You can find all the statistics you want if you want to crucify something. Our game is great. People that say, ‘I won’t let my son play it’ are fools.”

Unfortunately for Arians, the statistics re­garding concussions and football provide over­whelming evidence that the two are positively correlated. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (or CTE) is an issue that has just now become relevant to most of the American public. CTE (formally known as dementia pugilistica, or, punch drunkenness) is caused by receiving severe blows to the head. The first stages of the disease involve deterioration in attention, dizziness, headaches and disorientation. The next set of stages brings about erratic behav­ior, memory loss, poor judgment and social in­stability. The final stages result in the slowing of muscular movements, deafness, impeded speech, dementia and suicidal thoughts.

Initially it was thought to only occur with boxers, which makes sense considering one of the main aspects of the sport is getting punched in the face repeatedly. It was not until early 2002, when Nigerian-born neuropatholo­gist Dr. Bennet Omalu first began investigating the unusual circumstances surrounding the death of Hall-of-Fame center Mike Webster, that symptoms of the disease were identified in football players. “I had to make sure the slides were Mike Webster’s slides,” Omalu said in reference to Webster’s death of a heart at­tack at age 50. “I looked again. I saw changes that shouldn’t be in a 50-year-old man’s brains, and also changes that shouldn’t be in a normal brain.”

These changes Omalu was referring to were collections of tau proteins, which are supposed to help maintain the structure of cells, that had become defective over time and began to close around and choke brain cells. This is a direct result of multiple blows to the head. By the end of his 25-year NFL career it was estimated that the number of blows Webster took to the head was equivalent to 25,000 car accidents.

Because concussions are non-structural in­juries, they don’t result in bleeding in the brain, which makes them nearly impossible to identi­fy through standard neuroimaging tests such as an MRI. In order to observe CTE in a patient, one has to be able to examine the brain under a microscope, meaning the person suspected of having it has to be dead. Omalu was given the chance to do just that in the next few years when four other former professional football players died alarmingly young. All of them were found to have CTE. As of December of 2012, there have been 33 former NFL players diagnosed with postmortem CTE. Just before the start of the season in 2015, researchers with the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University revealed that they had discovered CTE in 96 percent of NFL players that they had examined, and in 79 percent of all football play­ers in general.

In the 2015 offseason alone, a number of high-profile players under the age of 30 made the decision to retire, citing health concerns as the reason. Whether Arians wants to admit it or not, football is dangerous. He can try and deny it but the sad reality of it is that Arians, who played football all the way through col­lege, will most likely not be able to remember who he was calling “fools” in just a few years.

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