New CTE Studies Show That NFL Must Look to New Ways to Make Football Safer

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Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center at Boston University, examined the brains of 202 deceased football players who played professional, college and high school football. The results of the study were published in The Journal of the American Medical Association and featured in a New York Times article. Out of the brains of the 111 former NFL players, 110 were found to have CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

CTE is a serious issue that is directly linked to football, one of the most violent modern sports. Time and time again, the disease has severely affected the lives of former players’ of the game during and after their careers. Even players such San Francisco 49ers’ linebacker Chris Borland, Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Tarpley and many others have retired after their first or second season because of the long term dangers of CTE. While the NFL has encouraged referees to call more penalties for targeting, illegal use of the head, hitting defenseless players and has moved kickoffs from the 30 to 35 yard line to reduce high speed collisions, the league has hidden and downplayed the effects of CTE and the risks of developing the disease when playing Football.

CTE is caused by repetitive brain trauma, which, in the case of football, comes from repeated blows to the head. CTE is “when a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells.” Symptoms from CTE, such as memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia, can arise years after a player has put down his cleats for good.

Out of the 202 brains of former football players studied by McKee, 87 percent were found to have CTE. One of the brains examined was Ken Stabler, a former MVP winning NFL quarterback for the Houston Oilers, New Orleans Saints and, most famously, the Oakland Raiders, whom he led to a victory in Super Bowl XI in 1977.  Stabler died of colon cancer in 2015, but it was reported in The New York Times that Boston University had discovered that he had stage 3 CTE, a discovery which made waves throughout the sports world.

Forty-four former linemen had CTE, which was 24 more than the next highest position, running back, which had 20 brains with CTE. Positions with the lowest risks were quarterback, 7; wide receiver, 5; tight end, 2; and placeholder/kicker, 2. Mckee said, “It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football — there is a problem.”

A solution would be for the NFL to further educate players on the disease and also work with players and coaches to teach a proper technique of hitting that does not incorporate the head. Another more drastic solution would be to take away helmets and seriously decrease the size of shoulder pads, which would make the game look more like rugby. This solution may seem counterintuitive in giving players less protection, but, as a player of both sports, players use their head much less in rugby than they do in football because the facemask and helmet present in football is often used recklessly as a weapon for brutal tackles.

Some high profile people associated with the NFL, such as 75-year-old Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, have downplayed the link between CTE and football. “We’re drawing conclusions so far out in front of the facts,” Jones said. “I recently I had a CAT scan done…  under an assumed name… the radiologist said, ‘you have the brain of a 40-year-old.’…. The point is: I was a fullback and a pulling guard. I used my head all the time, and I played football a long time. And that had no impact.”

The link between football and CTE is clear, especially in the NFL, and the NFL needs to do more in terms of educating its players on the risks of CTE as well as proper tackling techniques to prevent CTE. The repeated downplay of the disease and the absurd lengths the NFL is going to to prove that CTE is not a problem is an insult to its players. It shows how much the league cares about money and ratings, and it shows how little the League cares about the safety of its players.

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