The NFL is known for a lot of things. Big players tackling each other, cheerleaders, the Super Bowl, and sadly, for injuries. It’s a dangerous game, but players know that and still want to take part. Head injuries in the NFL are front and center now thanks to a new study.
Researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University have detected the brain disorder Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE in 96 percent of the brains of NFL players that they examined. The disease is degenerative and is caused by repeated trauma to the head. Its effects on patients are devastating, leading to severe migraines, depression and dementia.
The numbers are staggering. While 96 percent of NFL players examined were found to have the disease, 79% of other players had it as well, even if they had only played in college or high school. Brain tissue from 165 deceased players was examined in the study and CTE was found in 131 of those men. Boston University has the largest brain bank in the country and is at the forefront of the study of head injuries in football. Boston University's Center for CTE has been awarded a grant from the NFL to study the disease.
Of course, which position a player was in was a factor. The largest number of players who were found to have CTE in their brain tissue played either on the offensive or defensive line. In these positions players are subject to more minor collisions, on a regular basis. The small scrimmages, bumps and falls that these players experience happen repetitively though and it’s thought that that the build up of these traumas is a cause of the disease.
The statistics do not tell the whole story however. CTE has been diagnosed in living players
but can only be confirmed by sectioning the brain after death. Brain scans are used for living patients and other criteria must be met for the diagnosis, so there is always some question. This study put many of those questions to rest with the overwhelming numbers found in the players.
Dr. Ann McKee, the center’s director and chief of Neuropathology for the Boston VA Healthcare system told Frontline
, “People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we’re sensationalizing it. My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players.”
Dr. McKee called the newest research
“remarkably consistent” with past research that also found a high rate of CTE in players.
An upcoming feature film called Concussion, starring Will Smith put the controversy in the headlines again. The film details the discovery of CTE and the league’s initial denial of any head injury problem in the game. In 2010 the league issued several scientific papers and in a statement said
, “No NFL player had experienced chronic brain damage from repeat concussions” and that “Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.”
The new research was reported by Frontline on PBS as part of their “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” series. See the video below for more information.