Professional football is the most popular spectator sport in the United States. The National Football League (NFL) brings in more revenue than the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball combined. And, year after year, the Super Bowl is the most watched television event in America.
But in the past few years, one of the hidden consequences of the popular sport has come to light after a number of high profile football players were revealed to have extensive, hidden injuries as a result of their careers, some of which ended up being fatal.
High Impact Sport
Any activity where large men routinely crash into each other moving as quickly as possible is bound to carry the risk of injury along with the excitement inherent in contact sports. In football, athletes take precautions by wearing protective body armor and helmets. But even with those precautions, scientists have learned that serious harm is almost inevitable.
Aside from dislocated shoulders, torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs), and the other various injuries that are common across all sports, scientists have discovered that the repeated tackling and clashing in football, often causing mild-to-serious concussions, can have serious long term effects on the health of athletes’ brains.
Underneath the protective armor of the helmet and the natural armor of the skull sits the vitally important and utterly fragile brain. When a football player is struck on the head, it can cause damage to the brain regardless of those multiple layers of protection.
That’s because a blow can cause the brain to bounce around and twist inside the skull unnaturally, causing what’s known as a traumatic brain injury or concussion. That temporary deformation of the brain during impact can cause individual neurons to stretch and damaged, throwing brain chemistry out of whack.
If the blow is hard enough, the person struck can lose consciousness. But even if they don’t they may still experience symptoms of concussion, including “seeing stars,” confusion, headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, and fatigue, all of which can last anywhere from a few hours to months at a time.
The routine smashing of bodies and heads in games and in practice makes concussions almost a certainty. Despite new rules put in place to reduce helmet-to-helmet collisions, documented concussions in the league rose from 243 in the 2016 season to 281 in the 2017 season.
However, that data doesn’t cover those concussions that go undocumented or the countless other blows to the head that don’t reach the level of a concussion but still pose a risk to the brain. The accumulated effect of all of those blows over time can result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is a degenerative brain disease where a specific type of protein called tau accumulates in clumps in the brain, interrupting its proper function. Scientists believe the tau protein is dislodged from brain fibers during injury. In 2005, researchers published the first confirmed case of CTE in an NFL player.
Slow to Show
The symptoms of CTE manifest themselves slowly over time, usually taking eight to ten years to show up after repeated brain traumas, and the symptoms only get worse over time. At first, CTE results in subtle things like headaches, short-term memory loss, and attention problems.
But as the condition progresses, “most subjects also showed a profound loss of attention and concentration, executive dysfunction, language difficulties, explosively aggressive tendencies, paranoia, depression, gait and visuospatial difficulties,” according to a study that assessed 85 brains of former athletes and veterans who suffered from CTE.
Coming to the Public Eye
The violence and depression associated with CTE are really what brought it to the forefront of the NFL fan’s mind as several former players, including hall of fame linebacker Junior Seau, were found to have CTE in autopsies performed after they committed suicide.
It’s unclear exactly how many football players have CTE because the condition can only reliably be diagnosed by an autopsy. However, the frequency of CTE in those autopsied is alarming to say the least.
In 2017, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a major study where they had collected and autopsied the brains of 202 former football players who had donated their brains to science or had their brains donated by next of kin. Some of the players studied had played in the NFL, some only in college, and a few that only played in high school.
Extremely High Rate
A staggering 87.6 percent of those brains studied were diagnosed with CTE. Those who played football longer were more likely to have worse brain damage, with a full 99 percent of the former NFL players having CTE. That finding strongly suggested that the effects of brain trauma on CTE are cumulative.
The Later the Better
A number of other studies performed seemed to show that athletes who started playing tackle football before the age of 12 suffered more damage, and showed symptoms sooner than players who started later even if they played the same number of years, suggesting that the earlier a person begins, the worse it is for their brain’s health.
Change of Opinion
While the science is far from complete, it has had a significant effect on participation in football. The number of high school students playing the sport dropped by 25,000 in the 2016-17 school year. To bring the dangers of playing football into the cultural mainstream, celebrities like Justin Timberlake and former President Barack Obama both said they wouldn’t let their sons play football. Even retired star quarterback Brett Favre said he’d prefer his grandsons play golf over football.
Acknowledging the Problem
After years of downplaying and denying the dangers of concussions and long term brain damage caused by playing the sport, the NFL was pressured to admit it by the public, in the face of mounting evidence, and finally acknowledged the problem in 2009.
Now the league donates millions of dollars to concussion-related research. Though there was some controversy surrounding the situation when the NFL, according to ESPN, “backed out of a major study that had been awarded to a researcher who had been critical of the league.”
The NFL has also incorporated some rules changes to make the game safer for players, including a strict protocol of rest and diagnosis after a potential concussion before a player can return to the field.
They’ve also banned helmet-to-helmet hits and limited the amount of contact allowed in practices. Though these are positive steps, they don’t change the fundamental nature of the game, which includes man-to-man collisions for hours at a time. Until that ends, the risk of head injury will always remain.