Letterman Magazine


Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: Football’s Biggest Threat

The game of football is the greatest threat that it has ever dealt with in the history of the game. The threat is not coming from drugs, domestic violence, or performance enhancing drugs; although each of these are a scourge on the game and causing serious problems in their ow right. However, the greatest challenge to football (and perhaps much of the rest of the sports world today; soccer, ice hockey, lacrosse) is from chronic traumatic encephalopathy; better known as CTE. This fact was driven home again last month when it was announced that signs of CTE   CTE has been found in the brain of former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler. In addition, just last week Brandi Chastain, former Olympic athlete and United States women’s soccer star, whose penalty kick gave the United States the 1999 Women’s World Cup title, announced that, upon her death, her brain would be donated for concussion research. Diagnosis of CTE can only be confirmed after death. CTE is a degenerative condition caused by a blow or perhaps numerous blows to the head. It is at the forefront of the football world and is currently the chief worry among individuals that have played the game, coaches, and owners. I am going to examine what CTE means to the game and what has made everyone in sports take notice of the effects.

Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, and Junior Seau are three names that anyone that follows football has been familiar with over the years. Those three names are also the names of men that have taken their own lives due to, what many believe was, head related trauma sustained playing football. All three men began to suffer depression and have suicidal impulses after their careers wound down. The question that is out there today is how early and how often were those men suffering concussions and other head injuries playing football. Duerson, Waters, and Seau all eventually committed suicide; possibly due to depression and perhaps other effects that CTE was causing. The medical community is still working to understand CTE and its effects, in addition to its possible links to other diseases. The rest of us certainly can’t understand it until the medical community understands it. However, high profile sports stars, both here (Chastain) and gone (Duerson, Waters, Seau, Stabler) will keep CTE as front page news that screams to be addressed. Football can no longer warm the bench; it has to get in the game. Football must take action now to address head injuries and safety concerns, from Pop Warner to the NFL.

Another major issue for former NFL and college players seems to be the discovery of the link that CTE has to Alzheimer’s disease. The concern for a large number of former players is the growing cost of medical care in the United States. The National Football League has some interesting rules set for players that qualify and that do not qualify for health care. For players that do not last more than three seasons in the league, they do not qualify for the health insurance offered by the league. The health insurance for players that qualify only lasts for five years, which leaves them in a bind should CTE effects begin to appear years, or even decades, after their playing days are over.

It is not just the pro game that is being affected by concussions and the worry of CTE. The college football game is facing the same scrutiny and concern that the NFL is dealing with today. In 2014, the NCAA put together funding that, at the time, amounted to $70 million dollars for treatment of players that have shown the signs of CTE. Athletes must fill out a questionnaire to have access to the funding. It is likely that this level of funding will rapidly be depleted, and that is something that the NCAA will have to deal with, as testing becomes more advanced over the next decade.

A study put together by PBS and the news magazine Frontline, stated that high school football players are nearly twice as likely to sustain a concussion as college players. That is a troubling statistic from 2013; one that must be lowered in order for the game to survive. The NFL is taking steps through USA Football to teach proper tackling techniques, which should lower the number of concussions if the correct rules and procedures are properly followed. The problem is that football is an aggressive game and will always be physical. Injuries happen, but players are going to have to be honest about suffering head injuries and reporting the injuries. In addition, coaches and trainers are going to have to know the signs of head injuries and put player safety above winning. Addressing the problem means changing how we tackle it. Change is harder for some than others but no one has a choice. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy has already changed the game of football. Football now has to make the necessary adjustments to deal with that change or CTE wins.

No one knows what is going to happen with this game we all love, but one thing is sure the head injuries, depressions, suicides, and links to Alzheimer’s disease are scaring people (parents, kids, wives, girlfriends, coaches, trainers, owners, etc.) Technology, in the form of safer helmets, will hopefully start to reduce the number of head related injuries. However, as mentioned earlier examining the brain after death is the only way to confirm CTE. Football cannot wait for additional former players to pass away or commit suicide to collect additional data on head injuries. Football must start taking substantial steps to address the issue now.  Make no mistake, the game is facing a serious threat and perhaps its greatest challenge with head injuries. It is better to face it and start working on options how to battle it than ignore the issue or fail to take action. If things continue the way they are, we may not recognize the game of football in the next decade. Football can choose to address CTE now, or else very soon, CTE will be addressed for football by someone else.

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