The NFL has finally acknowledged publicly that there is a link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that can cause memory loss, depression and dementia.
So now what?
What do parents tell their children who dream of playing football in college or professionally? Should those who enjoy the nation’s No. 1 spectator sport feel guilty about getting excited when someone on “our” team makes a spectacular hit on an opposing player?
And should schools continue to offer football now that even the NFL accepts how potentially damaging playing the sport can be?
One idea has been to limit youths to flag football, which results in fewer injuries. It also would knock off a few years of traumatic hits to the head for players who go on to play in college and the NFL.
That’s important because researchers have found that sports-related head trauma has a cumulative effect: The longer one plays, the greater the chance and severity of CTE. As Boston University neurologist Ann McKee put it Monday, “We’ve seen it in 90 out of 94 NFL players whose brains we’ve examined, we’ve found it in 45 out of 55 college players and 26 out of 65 high school players.”
The grain of salt that must be taken with those numbers is that currently, the only sure way to diagnose CTE is by autopsy. And the brains that have been studied came disproportionately from former players who had experienced difficulties, like Junior Seau, the former linebacker who killed himself at age 43. Other NFL players diagnosed with the condition after their deaths include Frank Gifford, Kenny Stabler and Earl Morrall.
Many old pros, ones who took hits wearing less protective headgear than players wear today, do not have dementia. But many others do report troubling symptoms. Terry Bradshaw, for instance, has fought depression and memory loss. Tony Dorsett has experienced memory problems, depression and mood swings. Both attribute their problems to repeated hard hits during their football careers.
Much research still needs to be done, including how better to protect athletes. Some of that is already going on at the University of Washington with grant money from the NFL. Seahawks owner Paul Allen is funding UW brain injury research that could be valuable beyond football.
Soccer players who head the ball are also believed to be at higher risk, as are rugby and hockey players, wrestlers and service members who experience concussive bomb blasts. Boxing has long been linked to CTE; it even has its own name: dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunk syndrome.
The NFL’s admission also should prompt the league to go beyond the proposed $1 billion plan to settle concussion claims by former players. It now should look at providing financial support for current and future players who develop health issues related to head trauma. With revenues of $13 billion in 2016, the NFL can afford to meet its responsibility to the players who are risking not only their bodies but also their minds on game day.