As millions of fans across America tune in for the big game this Super Bowl Sunday, many of the nation’s football players are struggling with another battle. The game airs at a moment when questions surrounding concussions and players’ health are reaching a fever pitch.
Researchers at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy have released a study examining the prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players. CTE is a progressive, degenerative brain disease found in athletes who have experienced repeated trauma to the head. Its effects can include “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.”
The BU study found 50 confirmed cases of CTE in deceased players. Of 34 former NFL players who were examined, 33 of them had the disease.
Researchers at UCLA recently released a study involving living players. They found protein that causes CTE in every one of the five former players who were studied.
“We’ve got to follow people over time,” Dr. Gary Small of the UCLA Longevity Center told MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. “This is a preliminary study, but we published it because the results were so striking.” He went on to say that they were able to identify identical patterns in the brains of NFL players as they had in those who received an autopsy.
At UCLA, researchers invented a chemical marker that can be injected into the players and taken into the brain. This measure has a radioactive tag that scans the brain for “tau proteins,” the same kind of proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
“It’s not surprising that NFL players have a four times greater likelihood of dying from Alzheimer’s disease than people in the general public,” said Small.
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have confirmed the discovery of signs consistent with CTE in the brain of Junior Seau, the star NFL linebacker who committed suicide in May. Seau is one of four NFL players who were diagnosed with CTE after taking their own life.
The seriousness of the issue spreads well beyond the NFL. In youth football leagues, young players don’t have fully-developed brains yet and concussions can be more severe.
President Obama chimed into the discussion in a recent interview with The New Republic, saying, “I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you, if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”
“As parents, we have to understand why we’re putting our kids in sports. Is it because of teamwork?” asked former NFL player Roman Oben. “Not because of an end result, because 80% of the kids won’t play after high school.” Oben, a starting left tackle on the Tampa Bay Buckaneers’ 2002 Super Bowl champioship team, said that he told his wife that their sons had to wait until at least 7th grade if they wanted to play football. He made those comments 11 years ago, before today’s major concussion scares.
“I think, 20-30 years, you might see a situation where football is actually outlawed for children under 14,” said The Nation’s sports editor Dave Zirin, “where it’s viewed as the sort of thing like operating heavy machinery or driving a car.”