An Uncomfortable Truth: Tackle Football and CTE

Ron Berger —


As another season of the National Football League (NFL) comes to an end, I have been thinking about the football fans who live with a peculiar form of cognitive dissonance: They certainly must know (but seem able to deny) that the athletic gladiators they enjoy watching, who perform heroic feats on the playing field, are undergoing lasting harm to their physical and mental well-being. One of these harms is a type of traumatic brain injury known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative disease associated with repetitive head trauma that worsens over time.

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Bennet Omalu

In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was working in the department of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh, conducted an autopsy of Pittsburgh Steelers football player Mike Webster. Webster, who was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1997, had died suddenly (at age 50) after years struggling with cognitive impairment, mood disorders, depression, drug abuse, and suicide attempts. Omalu, whose story is told in the 2015 film Concussion, starring Will Smith, concluded that Webster had been suffering from CTE.

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Mike Webster

In subsequent research, Dr. Jesse Mez and his colleagues at Boston University examined the brains of 202 deceased football players who had played for an average of 15.1 years. They found that 87 percent exhibited signs of CTE. Among the 111 NFL players in the sample, 99 percent had CTE. In another study conducted by Dr. Michael Alosco and colleagues, also at Boston University, researchers examined the brains of 246 deceased players, finding that 86 percent showed signs of CTE. Among the players diagnosed with CTE, those who started playing tackle football before age 12 suffered symptoms earlier than those who didn’t start until after age 12, because head trauma has a greater deleterious effect on the developing brain.

CTE is a condition that has been known to affect boxers since the 1920s, when it was initially termed punch drunk syndrome or dementia pugilistica. It has now been confirmed in boxers, football players, and hockey players—and not just in professional athletes but also in individuals who discontinued involvement in sports after high school or college. CTE is associated with the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau, which form clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain. According to the CTE Center at Boston University, the most common symptoms include “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicidality, parkinsonism, and eventually progressive dementia.” The full manifestations of the disease may not occur until years or even decades after the last head trauma.

In 2016, after years of denial, the NFL publicly acknowledged a connection between football and CTE. This admission came in the wake of a class-action lawsuit settlement between the NFL and thousands of former players to provide up to $5 million per retired player who suffers from the condition. The NFL has also introduced more protective headgear and concussion protocols. As of July 2018, nearly 2,000 claims had been filed and more than $500 million approved for disbursement. Still, the players and their families feel that too many claims are being disputed or stonewalled.

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150207_wn_janis2_16x9_992Football is the most popular sport in the United States, and as many as 2.5 million children, mostly between ages 5 to 13, play tackle football each year. Research indicates that children as young as 9 are getting hit in the head more than 500 times a season. Chris Nowinski, co-founder and executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, thinks that parents need to ask themselves hard questions about allowing their children to play tackle football—whether the potential benefits are worth risking the lifelong health of their child’s brain. Emmy Award-winning sportscaster Bob Costas, one of the most astute observers of amateur and professional sports, says that the evidence leads him “to the common sense conclusion that you shouldn’t play tackle football at all until you’re 18-years-old at a minimum. … But then where is the talent pool for college football? The whole thing can collapse like a house of cards if people actually begin to connect the dots.”

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Chris Borland

Former University of Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, who won three Big Ten Championships during his college career, has been outspoken about the injurious effects of football—from the grueling practices to the games themselves. He notes the common use of steroids and administration of painkillers by team doctors to ensure that “guys play with whatever they had going on. … It’s a big industry. And they’re willing to put … young men in situations that will compromise their long-term health.” After being selected in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft and playing one year with the San Francisco 49ers, Borland retired from football because of his concern about head trauma, as he suffered concussion symptoms such as imbalance and ringing in his ears on a regular basis. “I think there’s a certain degree of hubris … with folks high in the NFL,” he says. “They own a day of the week, football’s a religion, and no matter whether or not they’re … claiming concussions are down … the reason football’s the most popular sport is because it’s violent. So they’re … in the violence business. Players joke that Dracula runs the blood bank.”

Sources

Michael Alosco et al., “Age of First Exposure to Tackle Football and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” Annals of Neurology 83: 886-901 (2018).

Carlos Ballesteros, “NFL Commentator: Football Will Die Because It Destroys Your Brain.” Newsweek, newsweek.com (Nov. 18, 2017).

Colten Bartholomew, “Borland: Winning Trumps Athletes’ Health.” Wisconsin State Journal (Jan. 19, 2020).

Bryan A. Cobb et al. “Head Impact Exposure in Youth Football: Elementary School Ages 9-12 Years and the Effect of Practice Structure.” Annals of Biomedical Engineering 41: 2463-73 (2013).

CTE Center, Boston University, “Frequently Asked Questions about CTE,” bu.edu/cte.

Rick Maese, “Dementia Claims in NFL Concussion Settlement are Going Unpaid, Lawyers Say.” Washington Post, washingtonpost.com (Mar. 20, 2018).

Jesse Mez et al., “Clinicopathological Evaluation of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Players of American Football.,” Journal of the American Medical Association 318: 360-370 (2017).

Chris Nowinski, “Youth Tackle Football Will Be Considered Unthinkable 50 Years from Now.” Vox, vox.com (Apr. 3, 2019).

Bennet Omalu et al., “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player,” Neurosurgery 57: 128-34 (2005).

About Ron Berger (39 Articles)
I am a professor emeritus of sociology and criminology from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I have published numerous books and articles on topics that include crime and criminal justice, disability, and the Holocaust. In my retirement, I also write about politics and economics.

6 Comments on An Uncomfortable Truth: Tackle Football and CTE

  1. Excellent article, Ron. Full of details all football fans should be aware of.

    Ex-UW Badger linebacker Chris Borland has become the unofficial-&-NFL-unwanted-&-unwelcome spokesperson on the subject of CTE since he retired last year after an outstanding rookie season with the 49ers. Your piece captures the research documenting and attempts to publicize the horrendous realities of repetitive brain trauma from intense contact sports, especially football. Borland has stated that while he is speaking for himself and made his own personal choice to retire early, he wants the public, organizers of children’s football programs, high school & college programs, players of all ages, & the NFL to be aware of the substantial risks associated with even moderate football activities.

    In addition to Mike Webster (another native Wisconsinite & Badger), probably the two most notable cases demonstrating the extreme consequences of CTE are Junior Seau & Aaron Hernandez. Seau was so distressed with his cognitive disintegration that he committed suicide. Hernandez exhibited violence even before he turned pro, and he committed heinous acts, resulting in being convicted & imprisoned — it was in prison where he hanged himself. In both cases, autopsies confirmed advanced CTE changes.

    At the last Badgers game I attended at Camp Randall, six years ago when Chris Borland was a freshman, I was struck by Borland’s “nose for the ball.” That day — and throughout his career — he was racing all over the field to make and assist in tackles, literally a flying fury of aggression. Really exciting to watch as a fan, but we can now presume that cumulatively this was taking a toll through hard contact and inevitable concussions. For Borland, it took just one year in the NFL, playing with the same abandon, for him to weigh big money and fame against his future wellbeing.

    More than a few of those pros who are willing to talk about the risks they know they are subjecting themselves to have admitted that the challenge and thrill of competing at a high level and for attached personal & team rewards takes a higher priority than contemplating & being cautious about a “distant” future they find it hard to relate to while being in their prime athletic years. In short, they “know” but they choose to put this reality in the back of their thoughts. Let’s face it — big time football is the modern day religion across America. These guys on the gridiron cathedrals are our crusaders, whom we elevate to heroic & celebrity status, essentially equivalent to the ancient gods.

    It will be of interest to many millions of Americans what evolves over the next decade or so to address the lurking epidemic of CTE. Do we, as fans of the game, root for less violence while still appreciating retained amazing skills displayed before our eyes?

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  2. Fortunately for me, I have lost interest in football (in large part because of its violence), so I don’t have to think about how to manage any cognitive dissonance. Baseball and basketball are enough for me.

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  3. Besides Junior Seau, among casualties by suicide in recent years are a couple of defensive backs noted for their hard hitting, Dave Duerson, 50 (Bears) and Andre Waters, 42 (Eagles), both of whom shot themselves. Duerson had written an advance letter that his brain be examined for CTE, prior to his gunshot to his chest. Both he & Waters, indeed, had extensive CTE. Equally gruesome, Terry Long, 45 (Steelers) in 2005 drank a gallon of antifreeze to escape from his CTE nightmarish symptomatology.

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  4. My wife Judy offered an interesting proposal. It involves another form of CTE, namely Continuing Trump Egregiousness. WiseGuys readers may well be aware that numerous books have been written on Trump’s characterologic and personality disorders (check out DISM criteria to confirm this) & even a few authors familiar with him over a period of years (up close & personal) observe that his mentation processes have become less focused & more “scrambled” compared to how he interrelated with them a decade or two ago. This seems obvious to us now — just tune into and listen to how he responds on the White House lawn or sometimes in open question format following meetings with guest dignitaries. This off beat & off script behavior is dismissed by defenders who say, “That’s just Trump being Trump.” Whatever is going on within his brain, wouldn’t it be interesting if, upon his physical demise, an autopsy examination of his brain could be done? Just sayin’ . . .

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  5. For an incisive viewpoint on this serious matter, go to Stephan Ducat’s December 27, 2017 WiseGuys piece.

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