In total, the researchers from the nation’s largest brain bank examined 165 brains of people who played football professionally, semi-professionally, or in college or high school while living. The brain bank is run as a joint venture between the VA and the university. They found 131 of the brains showed some evidence of CTE, including the 87 NFL pros.
Alarming results have been reported from a joint study between researchers at Boston University and the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, revealing that 87 of 91 deceased professional football players had some form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The degenerative brain disease has been brought to the forefront in recent years due to the suicide deaths of NFL legends Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, with the latter being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame last month. In total, the researchers from the nation’s largest brain bank examined 165 brains of people who played football professionally, semi-professionally, or in college or high school while living. The brain bank is run as a joint venture between the VA and the university. They found 131 of the brains showed some evidence of CTE, including the 87 NFL pros. The numbers reinforce the suspected connection between NFL football and brain trauma that has garnered increasing national concern in recent years as each new season begins.
VA Boston’s chief of neuropathology Dr. Ann McKee believes that the study provides evidence to the growing concerns, saying “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.” Symptoms of CTE include depression, dementia, and memory loss. The study does contradict some of the conventional thinking among safety advocates as well as the NFL and the NCAA, which have both undergone extensive revisions to its concussion protocol. The study shows that 79 percent of all football players in the study had CTE, yet nearly 96 of NFL players did, leading the researchers to believe that it is the less violent, but years of more frequent minor collisions that contribute over time to CTE, and not necessarily the occasional violent concussions. Although remaining “remarkably consistent” with other studies conducted at the brain bank linking football to CTE according to Dr. McKee, the study is admittedly skewed towards a positive diagnosis. A large portion of the donors suspected they had CTE or other brain trauma fueling their desire to donate their brains. Also, 40 percent of the brains donated belonged to offensive and defensive linemen, who experience the type of repeated minor collisions that the researchers link to CTE. Finally, while living current and former players have undergone brain scans to help with CTE research, a true CTE diagnosis can only be determined after death.
Many had speculated for some time the troubled post-NFL life of hall of fame center and former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster was the result of progressive brain trauma. A groundbreaking study of Webster’s brain in 2005 by Dr. Bennet Omalu regarding Webster launched the opening salvo in a battle between the medical establishment and the NFL. Omalu performed Webster’s autopsy after his death at the age of 50 in 2002 revealing that the former superstar had CTE. The condition was also found in the brain of former hall of fame tight end John Mackey, who was also at one time head of the NFL players union. From 2003-2009, the NFL attempted to refute evidence that concussions led to long-term brain injury, forming the now defunct Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, submitting scientific papers claiming that not a single player acquired long-term brain injury as a result of playing in the league. The NFL took an especially defensive stand against Omalu’s report, the story of which led to the Will Smith movie Concussion as well as a 2013 PBS Frontline special: League of Denial: Inside the NFL’s Concussion Crisis.
In addition to implementing the protocol changes, the NFL has made a dramatic reversal in its treatment of brain injury issues in recent years, however. As more cases of player deaths and clinical researched emerged in the latter half of the decade, the NFL began gravitating towards the safety concerns. In 2010, the league made a $1 million donation to the brain bank to help assist with the study. Similarly, after years of litigation in which the league initially fought against compensation for over 5,000 retired players who sued citing post-career concussion concerns, the league agreed in April to a settlement over $1 billion, although some plaintiff’s were disappointed in the final settlement amount. Also, the number of concussions has declined dramatically since implementing the league’s new protocol, which include players being forced to sit out the rest of the game and banned from playing again until medically cleared. The new findings, however, could lead to a fundamental shift in how the game is played, and perhaps even jeopardize the future of the U.S.’s most popular sport.
CBS Sports – John Breech
PBS (Frontline) – Jason M. Breslow
The Atlantic – Julie Beck