Brain Injury and Football — No Place to Run

The latest evidence is pretty hard to ignore.

The research leader is Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the CTE Center at Boston University. She examined the brains of 111 deceased NFL players. Of these, 110 had CTE, the degenerative disease caused by repeated blows to the head.

The marker for CTE is a protein found in damaged cells. Because it involves microscopic examination of brain cells, it can only be done after death.

However, families often don’t need that proof. While the victim is alive, they deal with issues such as early on-set dementia and suicide attempts.

The argument in the current report is that even if no one else in the NFL had CTE, the 110 proven cases would prove a statistically higher incidence of CTE among NFL players than in the general population. The bodies examined were a non-random sample of NFL players; families donated them because of concerns. However, the sheer number of cases makes the results statistically meaningful. There simply aren’t millions of NFL players.

And it seems likely that other players do have it. The skulls examined come from all playing positions on the American football field:

  • Linemen
  • Running backs
  • Defensive backs
  • Linebackers
  • Quaterbacks
  • Wide receivers
  • Tight ends
  • Place kickers
  • Punters

Everyone who plays is at risk.

More generally everyone is at risk. The major causes of brain injuries are car accidents and slip-and-falls. The difference between civilians and sports players is repetition. People don’t collect (hopefully) 5 or 10 concussions driving, but then can in football, soccer, auto racing, bike racing and other activities.

Even a single concussion can be devastating.

Like the cigarette debate of the 1970s, it’s time for fans and owners to move from denial to action. What do we do to care for the injured? Deal with suicide risks? Cover the costs of dementia c are?

There’s also the ethical question of whether people have the right to do things that will shorten their life. There is still an active debate on the ethics of assisted suicide in the US; doesn’t this fall into that discussion? If you opt to do something that you know can kill you, does it matter what the method is?


Sources:

  1. “110 NFL Brains,” The New York Times, 25 July 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/07/25/sports/football/nfl-cte.html?emc=edit_ta_20170725&nl=top-stories&nlid=57250219&ref=headline
  2. Gil D. Rabinovici, MD, “Advances and Gaps in Understanding Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” JAMA, 25 July 2017. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2645082
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