Football is known as a contact sport and injuries are common. But is there something riskier going on? A recent study is suggesting that brain damage is common among players in the National Football League, more commonly known as the NFL. One of the most popular sports in America, football has raised concerns on all levels regarding the health of its players.

Brain Damage

CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a progressive degenerative disease that afflicts the brain of people who suffer repeated concussions and traumatic head injuries from activities such as boxing, football, and military combat. The damage can occur over a period of years to decades.

CTE was brought to light to the general population in 2015 through Concussion, a movie starring actor Will Smith that depicted the journey of Dr. Bennett Omalu, a neuroscientist. Omalu, a Nigerian-born doctor was the first to discover and publish research CTE. Dr. Omalu studied the brains of former NFL players including Mike Webster and Terry Long and found the same type of damage to the brain consistent with CTE.

Signs and Symptoms of CTE

Symptoms of CTE can be detrimental to individuals and their families. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Loss of memory
  • Difficulty controlling erratic or impulsive behavior
  • Impaired judgement
  • Behavioral disturbances including aggression and depression
  • Difficulty with balance
  • Gradual onset of dementia

The severity of this disease and its effect on professional athletes has lead to fearful consequences. Junior Seau, a Hall of Fame NFL linebacker committed suicide in 2012 and was found to have CTE. Dave Duerson, a former safety of the Chicago Bears also committed suicide in 2011. The death of both Seau and Duerson brought national attention to CTE. WWE star Chris Benoit, who killed his wife and child before taking his own life was diagnosed with CTE. The difficult part with CTE is that the only way to definitively diagnose the disease is by brain autopsy, after death. Currently, The Brain Injury Research Institute, led by none other than Dr. Omalu himself, is working to develop a way to diagnose CTE in living subjects.

Response from NFL

Concussion depicts the difficulty Dr. Omalu had getting his research recognized by the NFL. The NFL initially was reported to have attacked the validity of the research. Since then the NFL has been more accepting of the research and has reportedly invested $100 million toward concussion-related medical research and technological development. In 2013, the NFL reached an agreement with a federal judge to pay out $765 million to former players and families. Most of the money will go directly towards compensating players who suffered cognitive injury but a portion of the funds will go towards further fund research and education costs. In 2016 the decision to increase the settlement amount to $1 billion was upheld replacing the previous amount of $765 million.

The Latest Study

Researchers found that 87% of the 202 brains they studied of individuals who had played football, most on the college and professional level, showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), including 99% of those who played in the NFL. The research that was published in the American Medical Association doesn’t confirm that CTE is common in NFL players. Nonetheless, players and their families have their suspicions that seem to be confirmed by the research.

110 of the 111 NFL players displayed evidence of CTE while 48 of 53 college football players shows signs of CTE. “There are many questions that remain unanswered” claims Ann McKee, a Boston University Neuroscientist. McKee also notes that they do not know the risk for the general population and for players at different levels in football. Also, it is yet to be known how lifestyle factors could contribute to CTE such as drugs, steroids, and alcohol.

Cause for Concern?

Since the Omalu’s research was brought to the light youth football participation and seen a significant decline that is thought to be directly related to health concerns, most notably, CTE. Between 2010 and 2012, participation dropped 9.5 percent in Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program. From 2010 to 2015 there has been a 27% drop in football participation in ages 6-14. Dr. Robert Cantu, regarded as “America’s concussion doctor,” recommends that nobody under the age of 14 plays a collision sport.

More research is available than ever before regarding the impact of collision sports on brain health. Although many questions remain unanswered there is significant reason for concern for participants in collision sports or people who partake in activities that lead to head trauma. As millions of dollars are being poured into research on CTE and other head injuries more evidence will be available to answer what is currently unknown.