A just-released study found that 87 of 91 deceased former NFL players, and 131 of 165 football players at the high school level and up, showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to memory loss, depression, apathy, poor impulse control, and eventually dementia.
The research, conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University, found that 40% of those who tested positive played on the offensive or defensive line. Notably, this demonstrates that smaller, repeated hits to the head cause more long-term damage than single strong hits that cause concussions.
The NFL has been accused in the past of covering up the relationship between football and brain disease, and this past April they reached a settlement with approximately 5,000 former players that will pay for the medical costs related to head trauma. The tab will come to an estimated $1 billion over the next 65 years.
An NFL spokesperson reacted to the study by saying that “We are dedicated to making football safer and continue to take steps to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, and expanded medical resources. We continue to make significant investments in independent research through our gifts to Boston University, the [National Institutes of Health] and other efforts to accelerate the science and understanding of these issues.”
This year the NFL released their own research that found that their safety efforts have led to some success, with concussions dropping 35% between 2012 and 2014. This is due mostly to rule changes set forth in 2013 that included banning hitting with the crown of the helmet, limiting players on the line of scrimmage during kicking plays, and more. Several safety-related rule changes were also made for the 2015 season.
As for the recent study, the somewhat shocking numbers are a bit misleading. One must take into account the fact that the cases studied were self-selected, meaning that those individuals may have already been experiencing neurological decline and for that reason chose to participate. Researching CTE is difficult due to the fact that the disease can only be tested for posthumously.
While the NFL has taken the brunt of the bad press related to sports and head injuries, CTE has also been observed in hockey players, wrestlers, martial artists, rugby players, and was documented in boxers back in the 1920’s. There are no conclusive studies showing the prevalence of the disease in non-athletes.
The continued strides the NFL is making to improve player safety are encouraging, and provides hope that future instances of CTE will drop significantly.