Note: I’ve written several articles in recent years about the concerns that I share and many others share about the risk of long-term brain injury among football players. I have interviewed researchers from arguably the leading center for CTE research, Boston’s Center for the
Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, including Dr. Ann McKee, Dr. Robert Stern and Dr. Robert Cantu. While I love watching football as a fan, I am concerned about the risks of the sport, especially for young children. This week, there was an important development in the debate over football and brain damage that I discussed in my latest newspaper column.
I doubt many sports fans find congressional hearings and meetings interesting. Monday, though, one of those meetings produced a remarkable admission.
Jeff Miller acknowledges a link between football and CTE
During a roundtable discussion on concussions held by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois asked Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, a simple question.
“Mr. Miller, do you think there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE?”
Miller answered, “Well certainly Dr. McKee’s research shows that a number of retired NFL players were diagnosed with CTE, so the answer to that question is certainly yes.”
Miller’s answer marks the first time ever that a senior NFL official has acknowledged a connection between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to ESPN investigative reporter Steve Fairanu.
Dr. Ann McKee believes CTE could be fairly common among football players
I’ve shared my discussions with Boston neuropathologist and CTE researcher Dr. Ann McKee in a previous column. She and other researchers in her laboratory have diagnosed the brain disorder in a large number of deceased former football players.
Dr. McKee participated in the congressional discussion Monday. “I unequivocally think there’s a link between playing football and CTE,” McKee responded when asked about the association. “We’ve seen it in 90 out of 94 NFL players whose brains we’ve examined, we’ve found it in 45 out of 55 college players and six out of 26 high school players.”
The reluctance of the NFL to discuss a link between football and the brain disorder CTE
While NFL spokesman Greg Aiello admitted to the New York Times in 2009, “It’s quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-
term problems,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and other league officials have been reluctant to concede a link between playing football and developing CTE.
In fact, three days before the Super Bowl this year, Dr. Mitch Berger, a neurosurgeon at the University of California at San Francisco and a member of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, asserted that there is still no established link between football and CTE.
It is important to point out that a link does not mean that if you play football, you will definitely develop brain damage in the future. It just means that you could.
Dr. McKee’s numbers – 90 out of 94 former NFL players found to have CTE – are certainly frightening. However, those were former athletes who had symptoms before they died and not a representative sample of all players. McKee admits as much. Still, it is a high number of cases for roughly five years of autopsies, so CTE might be more common than we currently realize.
Questions we must answer about football, concussions, long-term brain damage and CTE
We need to find out just how common long-term brain damage is for football players, not just at the NFL level, but also for high school and youth football players. Developing tests to detect CTE among living patients will help us find out if 10% of football players will one day experience cognitive decline, or 1%, or even 0.1%.
We have a number of other questions we must answer. What are the risk factors that lead to CTE, and why do some players develop the condition and not others? Are there genetic factors that convey an increased risk to some athletes? Are the repetitive blows to the head that occur on every play truly what damages the brain over time? Is there a risk of playing tackle football at a young age?
Hopefully the NFL’s admission of a link between football and CTE will allow us to start working together to find answers to these questions.
Are you surprised by the admission of a link between playing football and developing CTE? If you are a parent, do you worry about your child suffering brain injuries in the sport? Please share your thoughts below!
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the March 17, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.
NFL acknowledges, for first time, link between football, brain disease. By Steve Fainaru. ESPN.com. March 15, 2016.
The NFL Still Won’t Tackle Brain Trauma at the Super Bowl. By Sean Gregory. Time.com. February 6, 2016.