By Steven Shapiro
For the first time, the NFL is acknowledging a link between head trauma caused from football and degenerative brain injuries such as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy.) When asked by Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois if the link between football and neurodegenerative diseases like CTE has been established, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, Jeff Miller said, “The answer to that question is certainly yes.” CTE is the subject of the movie “Concussion” starring Will Smith. Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist who linked football to CTE.
“We see this in individuals who have had repetitive head injuries, usually over a long period of time,” says Dr. Ann McKee, director of the CTE program at Boston University and chief of neuropathology for the VA Boston Healthcare System.
“Individuals with CTE usually experience cognitive problems — memory lapses or behavioral symptoms like depression and irritability,” she says.
The film highlights the case of NFL Hall of Famer Mike Webster, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and died of a heart attack at age 50. Upon examination of his brain, Omalu discovered he suffered from the degenerative brain condition.
“We always knew you could have concussions and it could affect your career, maybe be career ending,” according to Dr. Julian Bailes, a former team physician for the Steelers.
“But what was not obvious, and what we did not know until the Mike Webster case was published, was that it is possible to have brain injury and maybe not even known concussions, and then later in life have neurological or dementia problems. So that was a sea change.”
But it’s not just football players who can contract CTE.
“It happens in boxing, it happens in ice hockey, wrestling. It can happen in baseball. It’s happened in soccer,” notes McKee.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Omalu said the risk of developing brain injury from high-impact contact sports is so great that young children shouldn’t even be allowed to play.
“We should at least wait for our children to grow up, be provided with the information and education on the risk of play, and let them make their own decisions,” he writes.
In May, Adrian Robinson, a former NFL linebacker, committed suicide at age 25 and was later found to have had CTE. His parents said they weren’t aware of the severe consequences from the multiple concussions he sustained while playing in the league.
“We would have moved heaven and earth for little Adrian had we known this was something we were dealing with,” says his mother, Terri.
Junior Seau, one of the premier linebackers in the history of the game, also took his own life and was found to have had CTE.
Other NFL players with confirmed cases of CTE have committed suicide, but McKee stops short of drawing a direct connection.
“Linking CTE to suicide is a very difficult endeavor. There are so many things that contribute to suicide. It’s a multidimensional symptom, but we definitely have seen individuals in our brain bank that have committed suicide.”
THE NFL says it has implemented numerous changes to enhance the safety of all players, including nearly 40 rule changes in the past decade, strict concussion protocol and better training and sideline medical care. The league also points to a 34 percent decrease in concussions in NFL games since the 2012 season.
But in April a federal judge approved an estimated billion-dollar class-action lawsuit settlement brought by thousands of former players who claimed the NFL hid the dangers of playing the game.
Two-time Super Bowl champion Leonard Marshall was among those who claimed the effects of football have caught up with him.
“I just noticed that my behavior was starting to change,” the former New York Giant says. “My patience, or lack of patience, was starting to diminish. I would forget things, forget financial responsibilities, take things for granted, have a short fuse with my daughter, a short fuse with my ex.”
Terri Robinson says the NFL must do what’s right: “They have to put the safety of the players first, because this isn’t something that’s going to go away for them.”