Football has often been described as a violent game, but with an increase in cases of CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated brain trauma, there is an even greater need to educate fans, players, and coaches of the risks of this contact sport. Problems caused by repetitive hits to the head should not be underestimated.
According to the Sports Concussions Institute, a professional American football player will sustain 900-1500 blows to the head per season.
The human brain sits within a sack of fluid, which is then enclosed with three layers of covering, all of which is protected by the skull. If our brains are impacted with enough force, at least 60 g’s, then our brains can crash against our skulls, causing a concussion. In American football, a player in a helmet to helmet collision can experience 100 g’s of force to the head.
In 2002, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was discovered in former NFL players, a disease often affecting members of the military and those involved in contact sports. CTE has been known to affect boxers since the 1920’s and was previously termed ‘punch drunk syndrome.’
CTE can currently only be detected by post-mortem brain tests. CTE causes the buildup of tau proteins, which can interfere with neuron function. Of the 165 autopsies conducted since 2002 on former high school, college, and professional football players, 131 brains revealed CTE.
This disease doesn’t present itself until years or decades after the brain trauma, and it causes a “loss of memory, difficulty controlling impulsive or erratic behavior, impaired judgment, behavioral disturbances including aggression and depression, difficulty with balance, and a gradual onset of dementia.” These symptoms, as described by the Brain Injury Research Institute (BIRI), are sometimes misdiagnosed as signs of aging or of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
Dr. Bennet Omalu brought attention to the issue of CTE in 2002 after he performed the autopsy of ex-Steelers four-ring (Superbowl ring) player Mike Webster, and discovered, using brain smears, that Webster had had CTE. Dr. Omalu, originally from Nigeria, is a highly credentialed physician with a special interest in neuropathology.
Mike Webster died at the age of 50 due to a heart attack. In his 17 years of professional football he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs (in the 70’s and 80’s), and took 70,000 blows to the head, as estimated in the new movie ‘Concussion.’ He was called “Iron Mike,” and was known for leading into defender’s chests with his helmet. He added extra padding into his helmet, but this did not protect him from the impact of collision, as human brains are suspended in fluid, and can strike against the skull when hit with enough force, as mentioned earlier. In retrospect, these factors all appear to have contributed to Webster’s CTE.
After football, Webster had financial troubles and became homeless and self-mutilating. Webster even pulled out his own teeth and superglued them back in. Other Steelers players to die due to CTE included Terry Long, who committed suicide by drinking antifreeze, and Justin Strzelczyk, who drove down the wrong side of the highway at a 100 miles per hour. These decisions and deaths were related to the brain damage these men sustained during their football careers.
Dr. Omalu published his findings in 2005 in the journal of Neurosurgery. He was the first to discover the trend of CTE in American football players. Dr. Omalu believed that the NFL would want to know about this problem among its players, but the NFL tried to shut him down, in order to protect the corporation and America’s sport. NFL league doctors called Omalu’s work inconclusive, and asked for its removal.
The NFL teams gave their players what they needed to stay on the field, and the NFL, responsible for organizing the most popular sport in America, owned a day of the week (Sunday). It would be impossible to fight against the NFL, whose central league office avoided taxes for decades, because it was considered a non-profit, and whose $233 million dollar Steelers Stadium construction in Pittsburgh raised taxes and took precedence over the funding of education.
Despite the NFL’s attempts to discredit the evidence for football’s connection to CTE, Omalu successfully drew national attention to the issue. It is not only a problem in professional football, but also in college and high school levels of the sport as well as other contact sports.
The movie “Concussion”, starring Will Smith and Alec Baldwin, came out on Christmas day of 2015. It is based on the events of 2002, beginning when Dr. Omalu, played by Smith, performed Webster’s autopsy. It’s occasionally shaky scientific facts and opposition to some NFL practices have worked up scientists and American football fans, respectively. However, viewers of the film may still walk away pondering the important subject of American prioritization of entertainment and business over the safety of players and education of its participants.
The film received criticism that it had taken on a very controversial topic, but failed to truly critique the NFL. However, on Jan. 12, 2016, Dr. Omalu, perhaps inspired by the release of the film, went to Capitol Hill on Washington to explain and bring light to the issue once again, having testified in front of U.S. Congress twice before.
Although the NFL has improved its practices in prevention of and response to head-trauma, an example of which is its 2013 ban of tackles using the crown of the head. Omalu still believes more can be done on the part of the NFL to prevent concussions and CTE. Omalu mentioned that “there is no helmet today, as I’m speaking to you, that will stop your brain from bouncing around in your skull. ” Omalu also discussed the need for Congress to raise awareness about the issue.
Everyone from kids in high-risk sports and their parents, to professional players and fans should understand the risks of contact sports and the consequences of CTE. The players should learn about these risks to avoid injury and brain damage. The fans should learn about these risks as it could perhaps decrease the controversy over penalties for hits.
Currently CTE can only be diagnosed through post-mortem brain tests, but recent studies at UCLA have led to the possibility of a diagnostic test that identifies the concentration of tau proteins in potential CTE patients. Although there is no treatment yet, this early detection of CTE could alert athletes at risk for CTE to the consequences of continued play.