Columbus, OH — Football season is in full swing, and luckily that means classic quotes from pigskin favorites such as Friday Night Lights are acceptable again. Sorry, baseball—but it’s just not the same. This also means another topic is back in the news: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). If you’re a sports fan, this term has become more than familiar; CTE was known to affect boxers as far back as the 1920’s, and more recently it’s been linked to other contact sports, like hockey and football. This discussion continues to cause friction, and the struggle between money and sacrifice has come to the forefront of many professional leagues.
In a 2017 survey conducted by Ann McKee, a neuropathologist, of 202 former football players’ brains that were donated to science, all but one suffered from CTE. In that same study, 111 of the participants had played in the NFL, with 99% having had the degenerative disease. The New York Times published a detailed rundown of the NFL players in the study, leading the league to respond. The NFL, which earned over $8.1 billion in national revenue in 2018, was initially hesitant to acknowledge the prevalence of CTE in the league. In their response, they recognized the links between the sport and the disease, but also added that “there are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause.”
Since then, the NFL has been more accepting of the information coming out of studies relating to brain injuries and CTE. For the 2019 season, they released new directives and a list of prohibited helmets to help try to reduce the risk of head injuries. While these changes are made to protect the players, not everyone was happy. Antonio Brown, during his short stint on the Oakland Raiders, took issue with the list of acceptable helmets, as his wasn’t on it. This led to a bizarre and prolonged stand-off during which Antonio Brown threatened to retire as a result of the policy change. Career-foreshadowing aside, this discussion showed the clear disconnect between the players, the NFL, and the scientific evidence surrounding CTE in football.
The biggest problems in the battle against CTE pertain to diagnosis and awareness. As of now, CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously, making it hard to communicate the risk players are currently facing and what they can do to lessen the chances of disease progression. With the amount of money on the line, it’s doubtful many players will share the viewpoint of Pro Bowler Bo Jackson, who said he “would have never played football” had he known the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy back when he played. As the NFL continues to make changes to protect their players, it’s still up to individuals in the sport to do what they can to protect themselves from the chronic disease.