For years, the NFL has denied or downplayed any link between playing football and the onset of the degenerative brain condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. While the condition is not completely understood, its development is now associated not only with the massive impacts to the skull typically associated with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) but also with repeated lower impact blows to the head. This admission comes as something as a surprise because just weeks earlier NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell compared the risks of playing football as not being out of step with the risks faced in everyday life stating “there’s risks in life, there’s risks to sitting on a couch.” Furthermore, at a February 4th interview neurosurgeon and a member of the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine committee, Dr. Michael Berger, indicated to a reporter from the Toronto Star that there was no link between playing football and developing CTE. The doctor did also explain, “There’s no question that you can find degenerative changes that are indicative of CTE in individuals who have played football . . . (but) I think tau is found in brains that have traumatic injuries. Whether it’s from football, whether it’s from car accidents, gunshot wounds, domestic violence, remains to be seen.”
NFL Seems to Walk Back Berger’s Statements on CTEs
On February 14, 2016, during a Congressional roundtable, an executive for the NFL confirmed that there is a link between playing football and the later development of CTE. During questioning, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety admitted this fact. In response to a question by U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky, Miller indicated, “The answer to that question is certainly, yes.”
This admission was somewhat shocking in that the NFL did not hedge or use qualifying language regarding the current state of science or anything of the like. Rather, the executive issued a clear and conclusive statement that playing football does, at least, increases the risk of the later development of CTE. Mr. Miller stated that he based his statement on the scientific research produced by Dr. Ann McKee. Dr. Mckee is an authority in the area of degenerative brain injuries and has studied the brains of 176 deceased individuals who were diagnosed with CTE including 90 former NFL players.
However, working from this now established link Miller indicated that there was some question as to what comes next. He noted that science is still determining how widespread the disease is in both the general population and NFL players and furthermore what the risk is of developing the condition. He stated, “I think the broader point, and the one that your question gets to, is what that necessarily means, and where do we go from here with that information.”
What is CTE and How does it Fit Into Traumatic Brain Injuries?
CTE is a progressive and degenerative disease that is linked to both concussive impacts and repeated brain traumas. The condition is typically associated with an array of neurological problems including a lack of impulse control, impaired judgment, increased aggression, depression, and increasing dementia. The condition can only be diagnosed after death and is marked by a development of Tau proteins.
In the 176 brains of deceased individuals examined by Dr. McKee, 94 brains formerly belonged to NFL players, 55 belonged to college players, and 26 belonged to high school football players. Of the 94 brains from 94 players, 90 were found to have signs of CTE. Of the 55 brains from college players, 45 had signs of CTE. Finally, six of the 26 brains belonging to high school players had signs of the disease. The increased prevalence of the condition in the cohorts of players who had played for a greater number of years is suggestive of the fact that the longer one plays and the more impacts to the head that are sustained, the greater the chances of developing the condition.
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While there is not currently a means of diagnosing the condition in living, researchers are working on developing a means to diagnose the condition before death occurs. Equally troubling is the fact that there are no known treatments for the condition. While individuals can take steps to minimize or otherwise cope with the impacts of the disease, there is no way to reverse the changes to the brain reflected by the tau proteins. While we have always known that brain injuries whether suffered through athletics, car accidents or assaults can cause serious problems we are beginning to have a complete understanding as to how devastating these injuries and ensuing degenerative conditions truly are.