FootballConcussionsMAINarticle by Tori Flener

Mike Webster. Tom McHale. Junior Seau. Dave Duerson. Owen Thomas. Eric Pelly. What do all these men have in common? Their ages range from eighteen to fifty. They come from different socio-economic backgrounds and have lived in different parts of the country. However, these men have two critical things in common: they have played football, and they are confirmed cases of having CTE. In 2013, Frontline released a documentary called League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, which comments on the discovery of CTE and the NFL’s denial then eventual recognition of the disease. CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease where the end stage consists of collections of tau protein in specific areas of the brain. Repetitive blows to the head cause this disease, especially trauma that causes concussions. This protein surrounds brain cells and eventually kills nerve cells by essentially choking them, which leads to mood disorders, such as depression and anger issues, and, in advanced cases, causes memory loss, confusion and dementia.

Bennet Omalu, M.D., who is trained in neuropathology, first discovered CTE in the brain of Mike Webster. Webster, affectionately known to football fans as “Iron Mike”, was a defensive lineman that led the Steelers to four Super Bowls. However, after his retirement from the League his life began to unravel. His personality changed, and he became increasingly irritable. His house was foreclosed on, he began living in his car, and he became increasingly confused. When Omalu first discovered CTE in Webster’s brain, he sent his findings to leading experts in his field and then published a scientific paper in the journal Neurosurgery. The National Football League subsequently condemned both Omalu’s research and his reputation, and the League even requested a retraction of the scientific report. However, the CTE debate gained more attention when the disease was found in the brain of another former Steeler Terry Long. He had committed suicide by swallowing antifreeze. His death convinced Omalu that this was not a statistical anomaly and could be a very serious issue among football players. In 2008, a Boston University neuropsychologist Robert Stern, Ph.D. recruited Dr. Ann McKee, a leading Alzheimer’s researcher, to create a study concerning CTE and how it relates to the brains of football players. The NFL first opposed this study; however, more and more cases of CTE were being found in football players. The NFL finally began to take CTE seriously when the NFL’s denial of the connection between concussions and later life problems was compared to the denials made by the cigarette companies about the dangers of smoking.

The NFL began to take action. Concussions are now regarded as a game ending injury. Also, the League now has concussion-spotters in the press boxes of games that look for any concussion-like symptoms in players, and these spotters now have the power to stop the game if needed. The NFL reported in 2015 that the number of concussions in regular season games have reduced by thirty-five percent in the past two seasons. Additionally, the NFL has donated money to help further McKee’s CTE research study at Boston University. As of September 2015, CTE has been found in 131 of 165 formal football players. However, despite the advancing research being made by McKee and her team at BU, there are still many questions about the disease. Why does one person get it when another does not? Do genetics play a role? Does CTE directly correlate to a specific type of trauma? One of the biggest fears about CTE is that although brain scans can show signs of CTE, the disease can only be confirmed posthumously. Hopefully, the research will not only confirm cases of CTE, but also give more insight into how the disease actually works and, if possible, how it can be prevented.