How football players may be risking their lives for the sport
In 2002, at age fifty, former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster died in a hospital in the city where he played. His death, although tragic, was perhaps a relief after almost a decade of both physical and psychological turmoil brought on by a career of professional football.
The official cause of death, according to the medical report, was a heart attack, although the investigation into the underlying causes would not end there. A 2015 article by Jeanne Marie Laskas of The Atlantic, chronicles events of Webster’s last years.
“His teeth started falling out. He got Super Glue, squirted each fallen tooth, and tried to stick them back in. He wrapped his hands with duct tape and stuck a pen in the tape so he could write thousands of letters. He bought himself a taser and used it on his stomach or his thigh. He zapped himself into unconsciousness, just to get some sleep.”
Doctor Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian pathologist, was called in to examine the brain post-mortem. A set of slides, which according to Jeanne Laskas were specially dyed and ordered from the University of Pittsburgh, showed abnormalities in the levels of tau proteins.
“Tau was kind of like sludge, clogging up the works, killing cells in regions responsible for mood, emotions, and ecutive functioning,” Laskas writes in a separate article for GQ.
Omalu brought his findings to multiple scientists at the university, and upon further collaboration and consideration, decided to make the research public. His paper “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in a National Football League Player,” published in 2005, aimed to draw attention to the dangers facing not only players themselves but the NFL as a whole. Was there something the league could do to reduce players’ risk?
Since then, the Boston University School of Medicine’s comprehensive CTE research center has collected data on more than 200 football players’ brains. Their most recent findings, from July of last year, found that the disease is more prevalent than previously believed.
“In a convenience sample of 202 deceased players of American football from a brain donation program, CTE was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177 players across all levels of play (87%), including 110 of 111 former National Football League players (99%).”
That’s not to say all football players get CTE. It’s possible the sample from Boston University is skewed. Of course, there are several reasons why the data may not be entirely representative, as families of brain donors may have had prior reasons to suspect that their loved ones were afflicted, or that recent media attention to the subject has acted as a motivation.
But, it’s also not a statistic that can be written off either. That 99% is not a drop in the bucket. That 99% is a huge proportion when football remains, despite annual decreases, the number one high school sport in America at just over a million annual participants.
Tara Haelle of Forbes magazine takes into consideration the Boston University study in her 2017 article, “Is Football Worth Gambling With High School And College Players’ Brains?”
“Of the 202 deceased players whose brains were examined in the study, two played football before high school, 14 played only in high school and 53 played through college. Neither of the pre-high school players had evidence of CTE, but 21% of the high school players did, and 91% of the college players did,” Haelle writes.
Only as recently as 2016 has the National Football League even acknowledged a link between the sport and degenerative CTE. Jeff Miller, the Senior Vice President of Health and Safety Policy for the NFL, in a roundtable discussion following the release of the BU report, commented on its voracity, in reference to Dr. Ann McKee, one of the leading researchers in charge of the findings.
“I think certainly, based on Dr. McKee’s research, there’s a link, because she’s found CTE in a number of retired football players,” Miller said. “I think the broader point … is what that necessarily means and where do we go from here with that information.”
This first step, admission of the problem, is no small feat—as league higher-ups have been denying evidence for years. An article for Frontline states that since the death of Mike Webster, members of a “Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee” (which no longer exists) commissioned by the NFL, claimed that there was little factual evidence to support causal links between concussions, football, frequent head trauma and lasting brain damage.
Currently the league makes donations to brain research facilities, keeps doctors on hand during both games and practices, limits contact practices and is looking to study helmet technology to better shield the skull from impact, according to a 2017 NFL wire report on their official website.
It’s hard to say if those measures can mitigate the risks of such an intrinsically violent sport.
Anna Lamb is a third-year Journalism major who would join the NFL if it wasn’t for the CTE. You can reach them at [email protected].