The NFL Epidemic

If you know a little bit about the NFL, you surely have thought that it is pretty rough. Fun to watch and enjoy, but you think to yourself, “I couldn’t do that.” You may even know that there is a disease that is associated with football called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. This disease can cause memory loss, confusion, personality changes, depression, aggression, etc., from repeating blows to the head, practically what football is. But, how bad is this disease and what can the NFL do about it?

About CTE

In 2005, the disease was founded by Bennet Omalu, a scientist that found Mike Webster had CTE in his brain. Mike Webster is a Hall of Fame Center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who died at the age of 50 from depression and dementia.

At first, Omalu struggled to find any evidence of trauma in Webster’s brain. All the MRI and CT scans came back negative and there was no signs of brain trauma throughout Webster. He sent the brain for staining, a process to reveal different information about a brain’s makeup, and found that the evidence presented was the abundance of Tau proteins, the clear sign of CTE.

Omalu would go on to present his findings to the NFL and people of America, and it didn’t go well. He was met with disgust and questions of his findings. People could not accept the fact that the beloved sport they watched every week had long-term deadly effects. A movie named “Concussion” was made about the story of Bennet Omalu finding CTE in Webster’s brain and presenting it to others. The movie shows the barriers and troubles that surrounded his process to show his findings.

CTE is not testable for a live human. There is not a for-sure-way to tell whether or not the disease is in a living being. Therefore, there is no treatment either. The only way to avoid the progression is to stop receiving hits to the head.

The disease has four stages. The first is headaches and loss of focus. The second stage include depression and mood swings. Also, memory loss can start to come along. Then, the third stage comes with many symptoms, as Boston University consider people in this stage, “cognitively impaired.”

Boston University found that 31 percent of the people’s brains studied in stage four were at some suicidal point. Other symptoms related to CTE deaths are “…respiratory failure, cardiac disease, overdose, and symptoms associated with end-stage dementia and malignancy,” according to the Boston Globe.

Picture courtesy of: NBC News
This combination of photos provided by Boston University shows sections from a normal brain, top, and from the brain of former University of Texas football player Greg Ploetz, bottom, in stage IV of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. According to a report released on Tuesday, July 25, 2017 by the Journal of the American Medical Association, research on the brains of 202 former football players has confirmed what many feared in life _ evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a devastating disease in nearly all the samples, from athletes in the NFL, college and even high school. (Dr. Ann McKee/BU via AP)

Throughout the NFL

The Journal of the American Medical Association discovered that 110 of 111 brains from NFL players, giving their brains to the brain bank, had CTE. But, that isn’t the only time CTE has been mentioned in the NFL.

Ken Stabler, former Super Bowl MVP and Raiders QB died at the age of 69 from colon cancer. They found that his brain has suffering from Stage 3 CTE. Chris Nowinski said that, “…he anticipated his diagnosis years in advance,” and, “…distancing himself from game in his final years, expressing the hope that his grandsons would choose not to play.”

Dave Duerson, a former Safety for the Chicago Bears, died at the age of 50, from an apparent suicide and he too, had CTE. Before his death, he texted his ex-wife to, “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” Alicia, his ex-wife thought, “I think David knew inside of him, there was something wrong.” Doctors would say that he had “indisputable evidence” of CTE.

Other notable players with CTE that didn’t make it past 50 were Tyler Sash, who was 27 and overdosed on drugs, Justin Strzelcyk, who died in a car accident, Terry Long passed at 46, killing himself by drinking antifreeze, Andre Waters, who was 44 and also committed suicide. Omalu talked about Waters and said he would be “fully incapacitated” if he lived another 10 to 15 years.

Another disturbing case of CTE is Chris Henry. In 2009, Henry fell from a truck and died at the age of 26. Dr. Julian Bailes BIRI told the New York Times, “I was surprised in a way because of his age and because he was not known as a concussion sufferer or a big hitter. Is there some lower threshold when you become at risk for this disease? I’m struggling to see if something positive can come out of this.”

The case of Henry goes deeper though. According to a neighbor named Lee Hardy, he was wanting to chat with the woman driving, who was his fiancee and said, “If you take off, I’m going to jump off the truck and kill myself.” Another person would call saying that Henry was lying on the ground “definitely unconscious”. A witness said when he was on the ground he was “foaming at the mouth”.

At first it looks like the case of the Henry’s death is unrelated to CTE but the deeper you look, more becomes clear such as the mention of him killing himself, as suicidal thoughts come into play with CTE. Also, the foaming of the mouth could be unrelated to just the car accident. The domestic issue also could have been evidence of the CTE worsening.

Picture courtesy of: Bleacher Report
Junior Seau is another player that suffered from CTE and died from suicide.

What The NFL Has Done

The NFL has made over 50 modifications to their rulebook to make the game safer. Specifically, to avoid head injuries, the NFL has added many rules to help make the game safer.

In 2010, the NFL added a rule to protect hits to the head on “defenseless” players. A defenseless player is a player that is in the act of making a catch or committing an act that doesn’t allow them to prepare themselves for the tackle to the head. The rule would evolve to different players such as kickers, punters, long snappers on point-after’s and field goals, etc.

In 2016, the NFL moved the touchback to the 25 yard-line on kicks, “in an effort to increase touchbacks” because of the dangerous nature of the kickoff.

In 2018, the NFL incorporated a rule to make it illegal to “initiate contact” with the crown of the helmet. The foul could result in a ejection and can be committed by the offense and the defense. In 2020, the NFL “emphasized” that using the helmet to “initiate contact” as part of the bull rush by a lineman or any block that used the helmet to commit contact, were not allowed.

Picture courtesy of SB Nation

Is It Enough?

The question arising around the NFL can span to spectrums, from, “Is the NFL to soft,” to, “Is the NFL doing enough?”

For one answer, the NFL is gridiron football and trying to limit the way the players play, diminishes the spirit of the game. I’m sure the NFL players wouldn’t want to get CTE but I’m also sure there are some that care too much about the game to stop playing. Especially with some much awareness, it seems like the players aren’t scared CTE or the NFL would be a ghost town. But it isn’t, so why change it?

The other answer is, are you going to let these guys just die? You can make changes to the game without actually “changing the game”. Meaning, you don’t have to change the dynamic of the game, prohibiting blocking, but make it so you can protect your head while blocking, and not make blocking ineffective. You can still tackle receivers making catches and make the pass incomplete. Not every “massive hit” video on YouTube has to be helmet-to-helmet.

Rules being put in place won’t stop CTE. It will always be an issue in the NFL unless there is a special helmet that stops it, or a cure is found. These rules are in place to help mitigate the effects of CTE and keep players from getting major concussions. But for both sides, everyone can agree on this

“If a player uses his helmet to make contact by lowering the ‘crown of the helmet’, that player should be penalized if and only if there was other ways to make legal contact, while making a tackle.” I say this because if you use your helmet to “protect yourself” as they said on the ESPN broadcast, that shouldn’t be a penalty. Two players collided on Monday Night and one was flagged for lowering the helmet. That doesn’t make sense if he is trying to protect himself. The rules should be in place to stop hits that are unnecessary

Editing and suggesting by Jennifer Bowers.

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