CTE And The Future Of Football

The topic for today is chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  From now on, I shall refer to it familiarly as CTE.  Depending on your particular mindset, CTE is either:

  1. A church bell tolling to indicate the imminent death of American football as a sport – – or – –
  2. A legal/financial liability that is an annoying burr under the saddle of Roger Goodell, NFL owners and NCAA Athletic Departments.

As with most things, I believe that reality lies somewhere between the extremes.  Let me start with what I think I know about this subject.  CTE is a degenerative brain disease; it manifests itself with symptoms such as dizziness, reduced attention span, memory loss, headaches, disorientation and suicidal thoughts/actions; there is no known way to cure the condition; it is progressive; it comes on as a result of a person suffering repeated blows to the head with or without full-on concussions because of those blows to the head.

Medical science has – currently – a severe limitation when it comes to diagnosing CTE.  The only real diagnosis comes from examining the brain tissue of a dead person; as of July 2017, there is no way to examine a living/breathing person to determine that he/she has CTE in an early stage or in an advanced stage.  That means there is no way to “screen” athletes before/during/after events that involve them taking repeated blows to the head to see if CTE has begun or has advanced.

Medical science has advanced to the point that there can be a post-mortem diagnosis which can then lead to correlation studies which can illuminate the potential dangers of playing football.  What it has done is to provide athletes with sufficient information that they might make informed decisions regarding their participation or continued participation in a sport like football.  Just this morning, the Ravens’ OL, John Urschel announced his retirement at age 26.  Urschel is not your normal NFL player; he was pursuing – and will continue to pursue – his PhD in mathematics at MIT.  Although he made no public pronouncement about the reasons for his abrupt retirement just as training camp began, the fact that a major study related to CTE and deceased football players became public only a few days before makes one suspect how he reached that decision.

The big news earlier this week was that a lab study on the brains of 111 former football players showed that 110 of them had some degree of CTE.  You can read reports of that study in this Washington Post article.  As a person trained in science, I know that correlation and causation are two different things but when the correlation is 110 out of 111 cases, one must sit up and take notice.

There is one aspect of this study that must be recognized.  There is a built-in sampling bias here that favors the correlation of CTE and playing football.  The brains that were examined came from players and or their families when either the player or members of the family had some reason to believe that the deceased had suffered some sort of brain injury.  That does not negate the study in any way; it does mean that this is not a “definitive” study that has explicated the entire situation.

Obviously, CTE has existed in Homo sapiens since the time when early men hit their heads on cave walls; the technology to detect CTE and the understanding of human brain structure and function have expanded since then, but the condition has persisted.  I have written before that people knew that boxers suffered from being “punch drunk” as they got older and people loosely attributed that condition to their history of being repeatedly punched in the face and head.  Football players similarly take repeated blows to the head albeit not in the form of punches.  Former head coach at Michigan State, Duffy Daugherty famously described football this way:

“Football isn’t a contact sport; It’s a collision sport.  Dancing is a contact sport.”

Former NFL players have sued the league successfully seeking compensation to cover the aftermath of their careers based on CTE symptoms.  That suit along with revelations like the ones in the study cited above have led more than a few commentators to suggest that the NFL and American football as a sport are on a downward arc.  That may ultimately be true but let me point out that CTE ought to be present in plenty of other sports as well.  If CTE is going to serve as the Grim Reaper for American football, then what about:

  • Boxing
  • Ice hockey
  • MMA
  • Rugby

Rather than conclude that football and these other sports are doomed to extinction based on the expanding awareness regarding CTE, I believe that the sports will continue to exist and will maintain a loyal fanbase but that there will be fewer athletes in the pool for teams to choose from.  Some parents will indeed refuse to allow their kids to participate in these activities but the number will not dwindle to zero so long as there are ample financial and social rewards for participating in those sports.

I suspect that the NFL – as the sport most closely located in the bull’s eye of this study – will address the results in a properly constructed legal and public relations manner.  I expect them to say inter alia:

  1. The league feels great sympathy for those former players who suffered in their later years and for the families of those players.
  2. The league supports further investigation into CTE and looks forward to a time when there is a diagnostic test for CTE that can be administered easily, and reliably during one’s playing career.
  3. The league has made player safety a priority as knowledge of CTE has expanded and will continue to do so.

The last point on that list needs to be expanded just a bit.  Recalling Duffy Daugherty’s assessment of football as a collision sport, it is not something that can be made “completely safe’.  I do not care what new rules are installed or what level of protective gear is invented and applied to players; football will be more dangerous to one’s brain than chess.  I think football is similar to NASCAR and/or Indy car racing in this aspect.  In both of those motor sports, there have been safety advances over the past 3 decades that have made those sports much safer than they were in the past.  But they are not “completely safe”; and as long as drivers are barreling around a racetrack at 200 mph, they will never be “completely safe”.

Auto racing execs and football execs need to recognize that safety is a real issue and it is important to the future economic well-being of their sport.  They cannot and should not ignore it; nor should they be paralyzed in their thinking by ‘safety fears”.  The CTE study announced earlier this week ought to make a broad spectrum of society take notice and begin to think about sports and athletes and economics and societal norms.  In today’s hyper opposition environment, I fully expect to be labeled as a societal cretin because I provide economic incentive to athletes to go out and injure their brains purely for my enjoyment.  Someone will identify me as akin to the folks who sat in the seats at the Roman Coliseum and watched gladiators fight to the death.

Obviously, I do not see myself that way and I do not think every sports fan should think of himself/herself in that way.  At the same time, I cannot control how everyone else sees me and if it is out of my control, I guess the best thing to do is to ignore those other folks.  Fighting/arguing with them is not likely to be productive; I doubt that I am going to reverse the course of my life regarding how I spend my leisure time.  So, arguing is going to lead to nowhere and I would prefer to do other things than engage in fruitless arguments.

Finally, there has to be a kernel of truth/reality in satirical commentary for it to be relevant.  So, let me close today with an observation by Brad Dickson in the Omaha World-Herald regarding the ardor of some football fans in 2017:

“During the Husker football Fan Fest last Friday a tornado warning was issued for Lancaster County and still virtually nobody left. That one sentence perfectly encapsulates Husker football.

“During the first Husker football Fan Fest free pizza and Chick-fil-A was served. Husker football, free pizza, free Chick-fil-A. I believe the unofficial attendance was 13 million.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



10 thoughts on “CTE And The Future Of Football”

  1. Not to politicize/trivialize CTE but your description is how I feel after watching/listening to our government talk about how much they “care” about me…and…the NASCAR “hans” device would be a fun addition to football!

    1. Jim D:

      While I share what is clearly your lack of acceptance of the typical political speech, I have yet to be driven to “suicidal thoughts or actions” from any of them.

  2. Great quote by Duffy. Having your clock cleaned or your bell rung. Getting knocked into next Thursday. How many fingers do you see? These were a few expressions we used in the 1970s. And, yes, we Raider fans always referred to them as gladiators in the Coliseum.

    1. Tenacious P:

      Back in the 70s the only way you did not get to go back in the game after a “bell ringing” was if you answered the question, “What is your name?” with the response, “I am Batman.”…

  3. Many years ago Discover magazine had a good article about the problem of concussions associated with football helmets, and had some data about the comparison to woodpeckers. In short, if woodpecker skulls were designed like helmets they would beat the brains out. However, most of the cushioning on the birds is outside the hard shell, not inside. I’ve seen something similar when players have worn the concussion shell, and there must be a reason that was done.

    1. rugger9:

      There have been equipment improvements in football in recent years and there is certainly more room for improvement in terms of injury protection – – particularly head-injury protection.

  4. Football will not die in the NFL. Local school boards will kill the sport when courts start returning 6-7 digit verdicts in lawsuits related to CTE in young adults who never played in the NFL. My local school system cannot afford a single $100K judgement. Nor the insurance to protect them.

    1. Doug:

      Your scenario is a dangerous one for the sport of football. However, I think there is some analogy here to the tobacco lawsuits. They caused major changes in the behaviors of the tobacco companies but at some point the settlements ended the financial exposure. If a kid starts smoking now – in 2017 – and smokes 2 packs a day for the next 30 years, he is not likely to prevail in an action against a tobacco company claiming they duped him or hooked him unwittingly into something dangerous to his health. I think there might come a time in the CTE lawsuits where a similar situation obtains.

  5. As far as rugby goes, the fact we don’t wear helmets combined with the law against high tackles (dangerous play, now above the shoulders, and also one cannot leave the feet to dive at someone) means that concussions are much rarer. It’s more incidental contact, not an intentional lead with the helmet hit (which is only usually done once if at all by a rugger).

    1. rugger9:

      Still I would imagine that the scrums and the heads bouncing off the ground cause the brain to “slosh around” a bit in the cranium…

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